LINCOLN — Supporters of banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity are hopeful that growing support from business leaders will finally push the measure to passage in Nebraska.
“This issue often gets tied up in partisan politics, but it really is a nonpartisan issue when you make the business case,” said Abbi Swatsworth of OutNebraska, a gay rights advocacy group based in Lincoln. “It’s about the perception of the state as a welcoming place.”
Omaha and Lincoln business leaders have long been in favor of banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and a key statewide business group joined them last month. It was the latest sign of concern among state business leaders that Nebraska’s lack of an anti-discrimination law is harming efforts to retain and attract workers in a tight national labor market.
But such a law has been repeatedly voted down in the Legislature. It’s firmly opposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts and some religious groups. And it’s such a touchy political issue that a blue-ribbon panel of Nebraska leaders last summer danced around the topic when they recommended changes for moving the state’s economy forward.
Ricketts and other opponents maintain that Nebraska can be open to all workers without passing a law they say could trample on the religious convictions of business owners.
“Policies like (this) discriminate against people of faith and divide our communities,” the Nebraska Catholic Conference said.
Nationwide, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have adopted laws barring workforce discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, enacted either by their state legislatures or the state agencies that arbitrate such discrimination cases. Iowa has had its law since 2007. In all, more than half the nation’s population now resides within states that have put such workplace protections in place.
Additionally, federal courts with jurisdiction over ten other states — covering an additional one-fifth of the nation’s population — have ruled that the federal Civil Rights Act’s bar on discrimination based on sex also covers sexual orientation and gender identity.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on that federal issue last fall. Nebraska, through Attorney General Doug Peterson, urged the high court to take up the case of a Michigan funeral home that fired a transgender employee. Peterson argued that the lower court was wrong to extend the federal sex discrimination law to include lesbian, gay or transgender employees, saying such a change should come from Congress, not the courts.
Four times in the past five years, the Legislature has voted down passing a discrimination measure on the state level. It’s not yet clear whether lawmakers will seek to revive the latest bill — Legislative Bill 627 — in the current session.
The Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a leading voice for business in the state, in previous years had taken no position on such a law. That changed last month when the chamber’s board unanimously supported it as part of a package of policies intended to advance the state economically.
State chamber President Bryan Slone said the move was consistent with a report this summer from a blue-ribbon panel of Nebraska business leaders that laid out a 20-year strategy for growth in the state. Ricketts disputed that, noting that the Blueprint Nebraska report did not reference such a law.
“Blueprint was designed to unify Nebraskans around initiatives that can move our state forward, not to pit people against each other on hot button issues,” said Taylor Gage, a spokesman for Ricketts.
But Slone said the board decided that the law was supportive of Blueprint’s call for Nebraska to promote diversity and inclusion as a way to retain and attract workers, as well as Blueprint’s goal of making Nebraska “the most welcoming state in the Midwest.”
Gage, in a statement, specifically noted that the law was not included in Blueprint’s “final report.” That raises questions about the process by which Blueprint reached its final recommendations and whether Ricketts had a hand in them. He was a co-founder of Blueprint and served on its advisory board.
Blueprint leaders say the report’s section on diversity and inclusion started with the work of a subgroup that focused on the issue.
Carmen Tapio, the CEO of a North Omaha telemarketing firm who headed that working group, would not specifically say whether its recommendations included endorsing such a law.
“Our committee looked specifically at addressing the issue of equity in our state, on multiple fronts,” she said.
Regardless, the job of putting the work of all 16 Blueprint subgroups into a final consensus report fell to Blueprint’s staff and its 21-member steering committee, made up of business and industry representatives from across the state.
“I can tell you there was a vigorous debate on whether to include the diversity section,” said Tanya Storer, a Whitman, Nebraska, rancher who served on the steering committee.
In the end, she said, the committee worked for a compromise that reflected differences of opinion.
Tim Burke, CEO of the Omaha Public Power District and a steering committee member who backs the job discrimination law, said the group decided to keep its recommendations to a more general endorsement of diversity and inclusion, leaving the “how” for Blueprint’s implementation phase.
The report’s final wording seemed to reflect that dance. Even a general list of types of diversity that included both gender and sexuality was struck late in the process. What was left was the report’s broad, nonspecific embrace of diversity and inclusion.
“We are trying to find a common path forward,” said Jim Smith, executive director of Blueprint.
In the end, Smith said all steering committee and advisory committee members had a chance to offer input on the report’s final draft, including Ricketts. Gage said the governor did offer input on language in the report’s diversity section “to align it with the views and priorities of the steering committee.”
Burke, who is the Omaha chamber’s chairman this year, said he remains hopeful that Blueprint can serve as a catalyst for change on the discrimination issue, something Swatsworth of OutNebraska said would be welcomed.
She said the issue affects lives well beyond the workplace. She knows of gay people in rural Nebraska who quietly live in fear of being outed, knowing it could cost them their jobs. And she said many millennials who grew up with gay friends want to see them legally protected.
“For (millennials), it seems like it should be a nonissue,” she said. “There’s a sense everyone should be treated on the merits of their work, and someone’s private life shouldn’t influence their ability to do their job.”