Topics ranging from employment to adoption and foster care rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people could come up in the Legislature's next session.
Monday, the Legislature's Judiciary Committee met in Omaha to hear testimony on discrimination and legal challenges faced by people in Nebraska because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Among the 25 people who spoke were teachers, lawmakers, parents and family members of gay and transgender people. Several clergy members also spoke — some in support of additional legal protections, and some opposed.
Amy Miller, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Nebraska chapter, said gays and lesbians currently are prohibited from becoming foster parents because of a nearly two-decade-old state agency memo, not an official state statute. Her organization has challenged the rule, but the state has continued with its policy of blocking gay people, either as couples or individuals, from serving as foster parents.
Miller said the state has a policy similar to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy formerly used in the military: Caseworkers are not directed to ask potential foster parents if they are gay, but if they discover that is the case, they can’t grant them custody of a child. In some cases, Miller said, the policy has led to children being removed from the homes of longtime foster parents.
Tami Lewis-Ahrendt of Lincoln said she and her partner of more than a decade, a woman, want to adopt and serve as foster parents but have been blocked by Nebraska’s rules. She said lawmakers should recognize that gays and lesbians could help narrow the gap between the large number of kids waiting for homes and the limited number of people willing to serve as foster parents.
“It breaks my heart to know there are kids sitting in emergency shelters, in inappropriate placements, in institutional environments because there aren’t enough families in the system,” she said.
Several speakers also told committee members that they want to see a statewide push for LGBT workplace protections. Advocates included military veterans, Omaha musician Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds and Missouri State Rep. Zachary Wyatt, who said he was the first openly gay Republican legislator in the country.
Others, however, cautioned that additional protections could be unnecessary and could limit the religious beliefs of some people.
Carol Clough, an Omaha nurse and teacher, said ordinances such as the one passed in Omaha could keep her from sharing her beliefs if asked by a co-worker. “If they ask me, I’m going to tell, and I could be reprimanded or conceivably lose my job for stating my religious beliefs,” she said.
State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who introduced the hearing topics, said lawmakers should continue to look into all of the issues. “There are a number of facets here that need to be looked at, and potentially look at introducing some legislation next session.”
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