Thirteen years after Nebraska voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, two lawmakers say it's time to get rid of the ban.
Sens. Brad Ashford and Ernie Chambers, both of Omaha, both say they plan to offer proposals next session that would put the issue of same-sex marriage before voters once again.
Ashford said the issue became particularly pressing earlier this year after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down a federal ban on recognizing same-sex marriages.
He called a five-hour informational hearing in front of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Friday to discuss the complications for state law because of the Supreme Court ruling.
After the hearing, Ashford said allowing same-sex marriage is the right thing to do.
“I have an obligation to inform not only the citizens of Nebraska of the basic unfairness” but also other lawmakers, Ashford said.
Voters approved the same-sex marriage ban by 2-to-1 vote in 2000, but there have been indications that public opinion is shifting.
The World-Herald Poll last year found that most Nebraskans now favor legal recognition of same-sex unions — though supporters of same-sex marriage are still in the minority.
Fourteen states, including Iowa, allow same-sex marriage. Hawaii is expected to join the list soon.
Still, strong opposition to the idea of same-sex marriage remains in the Legislature and around Nebraska.
“Gosh, I think you'll have a real, real difficult time” getting the amendment passed, said Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams of York.
Representatives from groups that campaigned for the ban said they would work against any attempt to repeal it.
“Marriage isn't simply a label that can be attached to different kinds of relationships,” said Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.
To put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, 30 of 49 state senators must support the measure. That's a higher bar than for bills, which require 25 votes. Also, unlike a bill, the governor has no power to sign or veto a proposed constitutional amendment.
Ashford asked those who testified Friday to speak about what happens when a same-sex couple marries in a state where it's legal, then moves to Nebraska.
Lawyers, a small-business owner and others told senators that the Supreme Court's June ruling has created confusion and complications for Nebraskans.
Should employers provide spousal health insurance? Inheritance taxes don't apply when property is left to a spouse; should the state inheritance tax apply when one same-sex spouse dies? What happens if a same-sex couple separates?
There aren't good answers to some of those questions, the speakers said.
“The bottom line is uncertainty, unpredictability, litigation — a lot of work for law firms like ours,” said family law attorney Susan Koenig.
Ashford said there's no way to adequately address those problems without repealing the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage. And he believes the ban eventually will be repealed, one way or another.
“Whether or not we act in Nebraska,” he said, “the federal court will find our constitutional amendment and others like it unconstitutional.”
Chambers said he also will explore a legal remedy — he'd like to officiate a same-sex wedding in Nebraska with the intention of bringing a lawsuit against the state ban.
“If there's any lawyer out there and any couple, we should get together and collaborate,” Chambers said.
In a possible preview of the legislative debate, the testimony became emotional.
Beth Abramson, a police officer who is raising children with her female partner, called the ban “Nebraska's inability to recognize me as a person and my family as a whole and my partner (and I) as a couple.”
Others implored lawmakers to leave the ban in place.
“I see a continual degeneration of the moral fibers of our generation,” said the Rev. James Patterson of Omaha.
Sen. Mark Christensen of Imperial said he thinks being gay is a choice.
“I guess I don't believe it's in genetics,” he said.
Dave Bydalek of the Lincoln-based Nebraska Family Alliance said his organization also continues to support the ban. “Nebraska's law defining marriage exists to safeguard a time-honored tradition,” he said.