LINCOLN — A state legislative committee declined Monday to advance a bill banning job discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
But the proposal, which is similar to one the Omaha City Council adopted two years ago, is likely to come up for another vote.
And its sponsor, State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, said she's optimistic that state lawmakers will debate the controversial issue this year.
“This issue is definitely not going away,” Conrad said. “I think that Nebraskans value fairness and equality, and understand that people should not be fired for who they are or who they love.”
Legislative Bill 485, which was introduced a year ago, would bar discrimination in hiring or in the workplace based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
State law already bars such bias based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status or national origin.
The bill would apply to employers with 15 or more workers, employers of any size working under a state contract, and the state and other governmental agencies.
But when it came up for a vote on advancement from the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, the vote was 4-3 against advancing. Five votes are needed for the eight-member committee to forward a bill for debate by the full Legislature.
There's a chance those five votes might materialize, though.
One lawmaker who missed the vote, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, said he generally favors such anti-discrimination legislation.
A senator who voted “no” on Monday, Hastings' Les Seiler, said he cast that vote because he got a new amendment to LB 485 only minutes before the committee met.
The amendment unveiled Monday, according to Conrad, is patterned after an ordinance the Omaha City Council passed two years ago.
But a pair of religious organizations, the Nebraska Catholic Conference and the Nebraska Family Alliance, objected to the last-minute amendment and asked that the Judiciary Committee postpone a vote to advance LB 485.
Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Catholic Conference said Monday that the amendment was substantial enough that a new public hearing was warranted. He said the amendment added “gender identity” as a new category, and also added language to exempt religious schools and organizations from the proposal.
Cunningham said it's “hard to tell” if religious groups would be exempt based on the wording of the amendment.
Conrad said the amendment was crafted because of concerns raised during the 2013 public hearing and was part of the normal process of drafting legislation. She said the request for a new hearing was a delay tactic.
The senator said companies as well as the public are supportive of such anti-bias laws. She cited a telephone poll of 600 likely Nebraska voters in January on behalf of the Nebraska Human Rights Campaign that showed 64 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly supported such a law.
“This is an issue where the business community and the public are way ahead of the Legislature,” Conrad said.
The senator last week selected LB 485 as her priority bill for 2014, a move that virtually ensured it will be debated — but only if she can get it advanced from the Judiciary Committee.
Hyannis Sen. Al Davis, who voted against advancing the bill, said he also hadn't had a chance to read the new amendment. But Davis said a deluge of emails from constituents persuaded him to oppose the measure.
The senator said his constituents believe that LB 485 represents “the heavy hand of government” telling them whom they can and cannot hire.
Also voting against advancing the bill were Sens. Mark Christensen of Imperial and Colby Coash of Lincoln. Voting to advance the bill were Sens. Brad Ashford and Ernie Chambers, both of Omaha, and Amanda McGill of Lincoln.
One issue that won't be debated this year is doing away with the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Despite some assurances that it would happen, no proposals were introduced this year to have voters decide whether to rescind that ban, which voters adopted in 2000.