Nebraska lawmakers revive same-sex marriage debate

Nebraska lawmakers revive same-sex marriage debate in wake of US Supreme Court's DOMA ruling

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska lawmakers are trying to resolve legal conflicts for same-sex couples who qualify for benefits at the federal level and in states that allow gay marriage or civil unions, but whose relationships aren't recognized here.

Lawmakers convened a hearing on Friday in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that tossed out part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act and cleared the way for legally married same-sex couples to receive federal tax, health and pension benefits.

The hearing focused on restrictions in place for same-sex couples in Nebraska that want to marry, or have done so in other states. Nebraska doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships, under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2000.

The Rev. Scott Jones, senior minister at First Central Congregational Church in Omaha, said Friday he married his husband, Michael, in a religious ceremony in Oklahoma in 2009. The couple moved to Omaha and formalized their marriage in Iowa, which allows same-sex marriage.

But the couple faces a confusing tax situation because Nebraska doesn't recognize their marriage, he said. Last month, Nebraska Tax Commissioner Kim Conroy cited the amendment in ruling that same-sex couples have to file their state returns using single status.

"Our family is more valued and better protected by the law when we cross the river (to Iowa) to shop at Menard's then it is when we are in our own home," Jones said. "This bizarre situation is unsustainable ... It's clear that our tax filing will be more complicated by Nebraska law, and may force us to pay higher taxes — which is ironic in a state that values lower taxes."

Supporters of the state constitutional amendment noted at the hearing it was approved by 70 percent support.

The Rev. James Patterson, also an Omaha pastor, said he views same-sex marriage as an erosion of Christian principles.

"I stand firmly with regard to the Judeo-Christian, biblical Christians for which we once stood," Patterson said. "I stand in support of DOMA."

The Nebraska Catholic Conference would also oppose any effort to repeal the state's constitutional amendment, executive director Jim Cunningham said. Cunningham said the group's position stems from the belief marriage is a natural, universal institution between a man and a woman that benefits society.

State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who supports same-sex marriage, has said he wants to explore a possible "middle ground" of civil unions, which he believes would receive stronger support from voters.

"I can come up with no other conclusion than gay people in loving relationships are a massive benefit to our state and our society," Ashford said Friday.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. Three states that forbid it — Hawaii, Colorado and Illinois — have authorized civil unions, which offer gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. Same-sex marriage is banned in 35 other states.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said he plans to introduce a measure in next year's session to authorize same-sex marriage.

"We have to take this bull by the horns, and not let Nebraska forever, in every way, be backward," Chambers said.

Of the gay community, he said, "I am looking at people who are disrespected, who are humiliated, not because of something they did, but because of what they are."