LINCOLN — Tempers flared Thursday at a legislative hearing on three bills concerning the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Nebraskans.
At one point, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the Judiciary Committee chairman, threatened to clear the room after an outburst by opponents of the bills.
The eruption followed extended questioning of opponents by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.
One person shouted that Chambers was filibustering the bills and eating into the time allotted for opposition testimony.
Long lines of people waited through the afternoon to speak for and against the bills, which would provide protection against discrimination in employment and make it possible for gay couples to adopt and provide foster care for children.
Legislative Bill 485, introduced by Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, would prohibit job discrimination against people based on sexual orientation. The proposal is similar to an ordinance adopted in Omaha last year.
“This legislation is not about special rights for anyone, it's about equal rights for everyone,” Conrad said.
Another measure, LB 385, introduced by Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, would bar discrimination against potential foster parents based on sexual orientation or other factors.
The bill would reverse a state policy adopted in 1995 that bars openly homosexual people and unrelated, unmarried adults who live together from being considered as foster parents.
Nordquist said the bill would help address the shortage of foster homes in Nebraska.
A third bill, LB 380, introduced by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha, would allow two unmarried people to adopt a child together. Howard said current law allows adoptions only by one person in an unmarried couple.
She said the situation leaves children unable to benefit from such things as health insurance, Social Security survivor benefits and, in case the couple breaks up, child support and visitation by both people who have been raising them.
Among those testifying for employment protection was Lincoln City Councilman Carl Eskridge, who introduced an anti-gay-bias ordinance in the capital city.
The council approved the measure, then rescinded it in the face of a successful petition to put the measure before voters. The issue remains up in the air.
He said passing LB 485 would tell people that Nebraska is a state that accepts people and welcomes diversity.
Representatives of Voices for Children, the Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parent Association and the Foster Care Review Office were among those supporting the proposed changes in who can be considered as foster parents and adoptive parents.
Others backing one or more of the bills spoke from personal experience.
Tami Lewis Ahrendt of Lincoln said she and her partner had wanted to foster or adopt a child, only to find out they could not be considered unless they lied on their application.
The couple, who were wed in a religious ceremony but are not legally married, have since had two children with donor sperm.
She said they have done all they can to try to protect their children, but without the ability for both to become legal parents, there is always a fear about what could happen.
Opponents largely focused their testimony on the employment bill. They argued that the measure would violate their religious faith and moral views.
The Rev. Mark Ashton, lead pastor at Christ Community Church in Omaha, said LB 485 would create more discrimination than it prevents because it would require businesses with a Christian mission to hire people with different personal values.
He said it would prevent businesses and individuals from expressing their opposition to homosexuality because it would be considered to be creating a hostile workplace.
“It moves us from equal protection under the law to special protection,” Ashton said.
Richard Clements, an attorney and bank president from Elmwood, said the behavior that LB 485 protects falls outside the bounds of morality.
Chambers asked whether he would fire a good bank employee if he found out that the worker was gay or lesbian.
“Not necessarily,” Clements said, adding that he doesn't want the government telling him how to deal with such a situation.
Other opponents included the Nebraska Family Council and Family First.
The Judiciary Committee took no action on the bills Thursday.
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