By ZACH PLUHACEK / Lincoln Journal Star

Supporters of legal protection against workplace discrimination for gay and lesbian Nebraskans say most of the state is on their side.

A recent report by two University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers appears to lend credence to that claim.

Of more than 1,600 Nebraskans who responded to a statewide survey in 2013, 74 percent said they support laws that protect gay men and lesbian women from job discrimination, the UNL researchers wrote in an article published in December by Sexuality Research and Social Policy, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

And while backing was stronger in urban areas — topping 80 percent — more than two-thirds of rural Nebraskans who responded also agreed with such laws.

“An overwhelming majority of Nebraskans support workplace fairness,” said state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, sponsor of a measure that would ban employers from discriminating against employees or job applicants based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Morfeld introduced the bill (LB586) in the Legislature last year but had it tabled because it lacked the votes to advance. He re-prioritized it Thursday, meaning the measure should return to lawmakers’ agenda for debate in the coming weeks.

“This bill would provide critical protection to hardworking Nebraskans so that they are judged on the basis of their work performance and not who they are and how they were born,” Morfeld said.

Groups that oppose the bill say it asks businesses and church groups to affirm lifestyles that violate their religious beliefs.

Al Riskowski, executive director of Nebraska Family Alliance, said similar measures have been used to target people for their religious beliefs, including in Oregon, where a bakery was ordered to pay $135,000 in damages for refusing to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple.

Oregon officials cited a 2007 law in that state which they said bans private businesses from discriminating against potential customers because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

“We believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect,” Riskowski said, “but we don’t believe this type of legislation accomplishes what the introducers of this bill claim that it does.”

Opponents in the Legislature have questioned whether the bill is necessary and expressed concern about creating additional protected classes in state law.

Morfeld says his bill would provide much-needed clarity for LGBT workers.

While the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriage nearly eight months ago, and people are already protected from discrimination based on marital status, gay couples could still face workplace retaliation for following the “natural progression” toward marriage when they date, Morfeld said.

He said the bill also would help address Nebraska’s workforce crunch. That’s a key concern for the state’s business community, and the Lincoln and Omaha chambers of commerce supported Morfeld’s measure during a public hearing last year.

“If Nebraska’s going to be competitive in the 21st century in terms of workforce and talent, we cannot lack fundamental protections for LGBT Nebraskans,” Morfeld said.

The UNL study found lower levels of support for other policies intended to support gay men and lesbian women, and the survey questions did not specifically mention bisexuals, transgender individuals or other people who might qualify for protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Respondents showed slightly less enthusiasm for housing-related protections, with 72 percent calling them favorable. Previous failed legislation has included those protections, too, but they are not included in Morfeld’s bill.

About 60 percent of survey respondents said they favor either marriage or civil unions for same-sex couples.

Some 56 percent said they support allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.

The study is authored by Mathew Stange, who recently completed his doctorate in survey research and methodology, and Emily Kazyak, an assistant professor of sociology and women and gender studies. Data was taken from the 2013 Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey, an omnibus survey conducted through the mail by UNL’s Bureau of Sociological Research.

Kazyak, whose past research has focused on gay and lesbian people in rural areas, said she wasn’t surprised by the results herself but suspects they run counter to stereotypes people have of rural, Republican-leaning states.

“I think they would be surprising for a lot of people,” she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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