Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in Contexts, Vol. 18, Issue 3 (Summer 2019), pp. 63-65.

DOI 10.1177/1536504219864962.


Copyright © American Sociological Association. Used by permission.


Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, two issues remain contentious in national debates about LGBT rights: employment non-discrimination and religious liberty. About half of all states in the U.S. offer protection against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Twenty-one states have religious exemption laws that offer protection for people to refuse services based on their religious beliefs. Debates about such religious exemption laws as they relate to LGBT discrimination have become increasingly common. For instance, a Mississippi law (HB 1523)—passed in April 2016 and implemented in October 2017 after a series of court appeals—protects persons who have “the sincerely held religious beliefs” that marriage “should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” and that gender “refers to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth” and choose not to provide services, including housing and employment, to LGBT people. Courts and state legislatures are deciding whether and to what degree religious exemption laws should allow people to make decisions in their work environment that uphold their religious-based opposition to gay, lesbian, and transgender identities.

How do these issues play out in a red state like Nebraska? Nebraska is one of 26 states that do not have an employment non-discrimination law for LGBT people. Bills that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s legally protected classes have been debated in the state legislature for the past 20 years, but have always failed. The discussion of employment non-discrimination laws often invokes the importance of religion and conservative values in Nebraska. In voicing his opposition, one Nebraskan senator said “people are moving back to Nebraska because of its conservative values” and argued that an employment non-discrimination law “would be used as a sword against people with traditional understandings of marriage and sexuality.” Another Nebraskan senator agreed, insisting that such a law would “foster widespread discrimination against people of faith and those with traditional understandings of marriage and sexuality.” Indeed, even though Nebraska is among the 29 states without a religious exemption law, religious exemption is de facto—there are no protections for LGBT people.