Debate continues in the Senate this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act — the first major gay rights legislation considered in Washington during the past three years.
Six Republicans joined all 55 members of the Democratic caucus to remove a procedural hurdle and allow debate to continue.
Nebraska Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer were not among the handful of Republicans who supported the measure. Johanns has a long history of being non-gay friendly while in the Senate, as mayor of Lincoln and governor of Nebraska.
Voting with the Democratic majority were Republican Sens. Ayotte of New Hampshire, Collins of Maine, Hatch of Utah, Heller of Nevada, Kirk of Illinois, and Toomey of Pennsylvania.
Exempted from ENDA are religious organizations. It also would not apply to businesses with less than 15 employees.
ENDA could pass the Senate by the end of the week, but House Speaker John Boehner said Monday he does not support ENDA, so it will face much stiffer opposition in the House.
The last major gay-rights legislation passed by Congress was the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy in 2010. All three of Nebraska’s congressmen, Reps. Terry, Smith and Fortenberry, voted to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson also voted in favor of the measure; Sen. Mike Johanns did not.
Only 21 states have laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and Nebraska is not among them.
Neighboring states Colorado and Iowa have employment protections. Kansas and Wyoming have laws or regulations that protect gay public employees. Missouri offers protection only to gay employees of the state’s executive branch.
It was not immediately clear how ENDA would affect Nebraska because it is an at-will employment state. Employees may be fired for any reason or no reason at all.
Nebraska also doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, civil partnerships or domestic partnerships because of an amendment to the state constitution voters approved in 2000.
Nonetheless, gay rights issues are heating up in the state as it tries to cope with the realities of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that threw out parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, clearing the way for same-sex couples to receive federal tax, health, and pension benefits.
Nebraska is also having to deal with a growing number of same-sex couples wed in one of the 14 states that recognize gay marriage but now live in Nebraska, and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Three gay couples recently sued the state for the right to adopt or become foster parents. Nebraska also prohibits same-sex couples from adopting their partner’s children, and it requires couples legally married in other states to file state income taxes as single people.
State legislators are talking about remedying the matter by allowing civil unions, which would seem to be the most palatable to Nebraska voters.
For the record, Nebraska is not one of the states Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called out last week for refusing to issue ID cards to the spouses and children of gay members of the National Guard. The IDs allow them access to bases and commissaries.
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Update: The Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2013 passed the Senate on Thursday Nov. 7 on a vote of 64-32. Nebraska Sens. Johanns and Fischer voted against it. The bill now moves to the House, where Speaker John Boehner is not expected to bring it up for debate.
Neither Nebraska senator has posted anything on their Senate website about ENDA or gay rights, but Joe Morton at the Omaha World-Herald caught up with both of them. (Midlands Republicans in Senate to vote against workplace gay bias bill, published Nov. 7, 2013.)
Johanns said in a statement released after the earlier vote: “I firmly believe every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, but I have serious concerns about the impact this legislation would have on religious organizations and private business owners with deeply-held religious beliefs.”
Fischer said she would have wanted greater protection for religious organizations, but the rest of her comments were somewhat confusing.
“I don’t like the fact that we carve out all these special privileges. That has always, always bothered me,” Fischer told Morton. “I don’t think anybody, anybody should be discriminated against. As a woman I shouldn’t be discriminated against. I don’t think it’s helpful to always carve this out, though, saying women shouldn’t be discriminated against.”
The confusing aspect of her comment is that women do have legal protections from discrimination in the workplace.