Ban on job discrimination for sexual orientation stalls after anti-Catholic remarks

Feb. 11, 2015, 5:35 a.m. ·

Nebraska Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A proposed ban on employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender has hit a snag in the Nebraska Legislature. Meanwhile, opponents are fighting a proposal to require school children to be vaccinated against meningitis.

Tuesday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee voted to send the proposed ban on employment discrimination to the full Legislature. Sen. Bob Krist voted yes. But Wednesday, Krist said he’ll try and get the committee to change its vote.

Krist, who’s Catholic and white, said he’s reacting to some remarks made by Sen. Ernie Chambers, a black atheist, following the vote. "He doesn’t like Catholics. He’s never liked Catholics. And the things that were said about my religion, my faith, and my race cued me that maybe we need to expand this, that if it’s anti-discrimination we’re talking about, that we’re covering the bases."

Chambers, a Jesuit-educated graduate of Creighton University, frequently rails against what he calls the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, and the racism of white people. Wednesday, he professed not to remember what Krist was referring to. "There’s no way in the world I can recall with precision what I said on those two subjects," he said, adding "I’ve said a lot about both of them."

Chambers said Krist ought to go after him, instead of going after the anti-discrimination bill sponsored by Sen. Adam Morfeld. "If somebody is very offended at something I said, I should be the target, and not somebody else’s legislation. And not somebody else," he said.

Krist said he’s working on strengthening what he called a "conscientious" or religious exemption in the bill. And he said he expects to support sending the bill to the full Legislature eventually, declaring "I have all intentions of working with Sen. Morfeld to make sure that it comes out of committee this year."

Meanwhile, in legislative debate Wednesday, opponents of requiring Nebraska schoolchildren to be vaccinated against meningitis delayed the bill from getting to a second-round vote. Sen. Mike Groene, who led the opposition, said no one talked to him about such a requirement when he was campaigning last year. "Nobody asked me when I was banging on doors about a meningitis vaccination. Why would you? We had zero cases in the state of Nebraska last year," he said.

Groene said almost 80 percent of Nebraskans are vaccinated against the disease voluntarily, but even before the vaccine came out in 2005, there had been very few cases. Sen. Robert Hilkemann got Groene to concede that the current outbreak of measles in California could be traced to people opting out of vaccinations. Hilkemann said he supports requiring meningitis vaccinations. "I don’t like mandates, but I also think this is a public health issue," he said. Hilkemann also quoted approvingly a doctor’s letter to a newspaper editor: "Vaccinations are the price that we pay for living in a civilized society."

Senators adjourned for the day without reaching a second-round vote on the bill. It’s scheduled to come up again Thursday.

On another issue, senators may debate later this year a proposal to ask voters if they want the Legislature to make future decisions about expanded gambling. A committee has sent a proposed constitutional amendment to do that to the full Legislature.