Nebraska may be shifting on gay rights


June 13th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Recent advancements in the legal protections of gay and lesbian residents of Nebraska might be demonstrating a historic shift in the state. But opponents are fighting back, both politically and, potentially, legally.

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Last week, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved health benefits for unmarried partners, including same-sex couples. Advocating for the benefits proposal, University system president J. B. Milliken said change was needed, and not only to compete for faculty with other universities who already have such policies.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor Helen Moore asks the regents to approve health benefits for unmarried partners. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

“It’s clear to me that this is important for competitiveness purposes,” Milliken said. “But over the last year or so, particularly over the last seven months, I have come to believe that there is a more important reason to do it. It is the right thing to do for our employees. It is the right thing to do to treat employees equitably and to not discriminate against some of our employees.”

Among those supporting the change in policy was Helen Moore, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociology professor who described some of the discrimination she’s suffered.

“My partner and I were driven from our home of 20 years by a demented neighbor, riled by bigotry and hatred,” she told the regents. “He targeted us, literally. He destroyed our gardens, he rammed our fence, and he put a hunting spotlight on his garage and pointed it into our bedroom window. And we finally moved when he began throwing poison into our yard for our dogs to eat.”

University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumna Hannah Buell asks the Regents to reject health benefits for unmarried partners. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Board of Regents’ decision is the latest in a series of recent developments concerning gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Nebraska. It follows non-discrimination ordinances passed by the state’s two largest cities.

But while each development had its supporters, there were plenty of voices of dissent. The advocacy organization Family First opposed the university benefits change, as well as the Lincoln city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. After the city council passed the ordinance, Family First helped collect enough signatures to put it on the ballot for a public vote.

Dave Bydalek, the group’s executive director, said the experience Moore described is horrible, but not necessarily an argument for legal changes. “I think most sensible people would say ‘That’s terrible. Stuff like that has to stop.’ But you have to get to the heart of that person who’s just mean-spirited and a jerk. That’s a separate issue from employment benefits or from sexual orientation or gender identity policy in the workplace or in public accommodation or in housing,” Bydalek said.

Carl Eskridge is the Lincoln City Councilman who introduced the anti-discrimination ordinance. Eskridge said 165 cities nationwide have already passed similar ordinances, including 11 that are home to Big 10 schools.

A public hearing in Omaha March 6 drew hundreds of impassioned supporters and opponents. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“The one Big 10 university city that’s not on that list is Lincoln, Nebraska,” he said. “So it just seems to me that we need to get our name on that list, to join those other 160-some progressive cities that do recognize the importance of providing this protection.”

(Click here for an opinion from the Nebraska attorney general’s office on the legality of local anti-discrimination ordinances. Eskridge said the Lincoln city attorney’s office has a different opinion, but it hasn’t been made public.)

Bydalek said opponents think ordinances like Lincoln’s, or one passed in Omaha in March, will force them to act against their beliefs. He cited examples like a New Mexico photographer, fined for refusing to take pictures of a same-sex commitment ceremony.

Eskridge said there’s no telling what a Nebraska court might do, but if a business is approached to provide a service, it should do so.

Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray led the charge in Omaha to pass the ordinance. The Lincoln City Council followed suit shortly after. (Photo by Lindsey Peterson)

Bydalek said he understands that a lot of reasonable people think different expressions of sexuality should be protected.

“But there are a lot of people who are traditionalists who disagree. Your main religions, one of the main dictates of those religions is that it does have a moral aspect — but then you make it illegal to make any sort of judgments based upon that,” he said. “When you make that a law, it’s inescapable that that traditionalist mentality and the agenda people — people who are driven by another world view — it’s going to clash.”

Bydalek said there may be a legal challenge to the university’s new benefits policy.

(Click here for a legal opinion commissioned by the University on the legality of same-sex benefits.)

At the meeting where the change was approved, Regent Bob Whitehouse of Papillion described one dimension of the clash.

“There’s definitely a generational gap in the thinking in this area. And I know that older Nebraskans believe differently,” Whitehouse said. “When I talk to young people, and many, many, many of them talk to me, they don’t understand why this hasn’t happened before, and What’s the issue? What’s the problem?’ You go to the other hand, if they’re over the age of whatever — fill in the blank — they go, You’re going to what?'”

While several regents said their constituents were heavily against the benefits change, all four student senates at the university’s various campuses supported it.

But young people were not monolithic in their opinions. One of those speaking against the change was Hannah Buell, a recent graduate who now works for the Nebraska Family Coalition, another opposition group. Buell said adopting the proposal would send the wrong message.

“We communicate to students that sexual relationships without a lifelong commitment are just as beneficial as relationships with such a commitment, such as marriage,” she said. “Yet we know that after decades of social science research that this belief is scientifically inaccurate. This proposal could unintentionally lead students to disrespect the academic process and scientific research and lead students to make personal decisions that cause damage that could have been avoided.”

Eskridge, himself an ordained Presbyterian minister, said he understands religious opposition to the antidiscrimination measures, even though he disagrees with it. Now that the decision is headed for the ballot, Eskridge said he hopes it will be made amicably.

“The people I talk to, even if they don’t necessarily agree with the lifestyle choices,’ as they put it, are respectful. And that’s really important to me, is that when we have this election, when we go into debating it and making a decision, that we are very respectful of one another,” he said. “And this goes for people on both sides. And just make a decision in a in a civil way, in a way that’s best for the community, and move on.”

Eskridge said the city council could decide to put the issue on the ballot in November or next spring; schedule a special election; or hold an election by mail. He said he expects a decision on timing by early July.

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