ACLU and Lambda Legal File Federal Lawsuit To Strike Down Nebraskas Extreme Law Banning Any Recognition of Gay Couples

Date

Date: 
04/30/2003

LINCOLN, NE - Charging that Nebraska’s constitutional amendment banning any kind of same-sex relationship recognition blocks gay people from advocating for even the most basic protections for their families, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to strike down the law.

“This is by far the most extreme anti-gay family law in the country,” said David Buckel, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal. “This law prevents gay couples from seeking even the most basic protections for their families - it blocks them out of the political process entirely.”

Section 29 was passed in November 2000 in a heavily debated election that received the second highest turnout in the state’s history. Promoted to voters simply as protection of traditional marriage, the law goes far beyond restricting the right to marry to heterosexual couples. The law specifically voids the uniting of two persons of the same sex in a “civil union, domestic partnership, or other similar same-sex relationship.”

“States and voters can - and should - have broad discretion to pass laws, but there are some limitations that are spelled out in our nation’s Constitution,” said Amy Miller of ACLU Nebraska. “It’s clear that it’s unconstitutional for a state to have a law thats only purpose is to express disapproval toward gay people or to block gay people out of the political process.”

“This law makes gay people second class citizens and hurts their families in many ways,” said Shelley Kiel of Nebraska Advocates for Justice and Equality (NAJE). “Nebraskans in same-sex relationships can’t even lobby their representatives for the right to decide where to bury their lifelong partners, the right to take bereavement leave or the right to hospital visitation or emergency leave if their partners become ill.”

Earlier this year, Senator Nancy Thompson introduced a bill that would give same-sex couples the right to make burial arrangements for their partners. In response, Attorney General Jon Bruning issued an opinion on March 10, stating that the bill was unconstitutional because of Section 29.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Lincoln, charges that the state law violates the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU and Lambda Legal are suing on behalf of Citizens for Equal Protection (CFEP), NAJE, and ACLU Nebraska, three advocacy organizations in Nebraska that are prevented from seeking equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual couples because of the law.

Members of these organizations include Judy Gibson and Barbara DiBernard of Lincoln, who have been living together as a couple for over 14 years and have made commitments to care for one another for the rest of their lives. Judy suffers from a degenerative disease that requires her to use a wheelchair. Because of Nebraska’s law, Barbara, who works for the state university, does not have the option of obtaining coverage for Judy on her university health plan. Barbara is also prevented from advocating for a policy authorizing her to take time off from work to take Judy to her regular medical appointments.

Donna Colley and Margaux Town-Colley of Omaha have been in a committed, loving relationship for over six years and are the proud parents of an 18-month-old son. With a child’s needs to consider, Nebraska has made Donna and Margaux especially concerned about what would happen if either of them dies or should become incapacitated. The law makes it impossible for the couple to seek legislation that would allow them to designate each other as the person responsible for making emergency medical decision or funeral decisions.

Since Nebraska’s law went into effect, business leaders within the state, including James Clifton of the Gallup Corporation, have spoken out about how the law has hurt the state’s image and economy. To stay competitive, more business and government employees are providing health insurance and benefits to lesbian and gay employees’ same-sex partners. In late February, Clifton said Nebraska’s anti-gay law has hurt the state’s economic prospects and “made ourselves a joke.” More than 150 local governments and more than 5,000 companies nationwide recognize same-sex couples.

“The citizens of Nebraska were manipulated into believing this law was about protecting the institution of marriage, when in reality it was a carefully executed campaign of discrimination and hate,” said M.J. McBride, President of CFEP. “Nebraska’s law is bad for families, bad for our state and plainly unconstitutional.”

The attorneys who are bring the challenge to the law include Robert Bartle of Bartle & Geier, David Buckel and Brian Chase of Lambda Legal, Tamara Lange of the Lesbian & Gay Rights Project of the ACLU, and Amy Miller of the ACLU Nebraska.

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The case is Citizens for Equal Protection, Inc., et al v. Governor Michael O. Johanns, et al, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. The legal complaint is available online at www.aclu.org and www.lambdalegal.org/documents/1253.

Contact: Paul Cates, ACLU, (212) 549-2568; cell, (917) 566-1294
Lisa Hardaway, Lambda Legal, 212-809-8585; pager: (888) 987-1971

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