A Nebraskan holds a sign reading "Abortion access is a community responsibility" at a rally ahead of the hearing of LB 626, the defeated near-total abortion ban.

The ACLU of Nebraska’s mission is to defend and protect the civil rights and civil liberties of Nebraskans as guaranteed in both the United States and Nebraska Constitutions. With this mission in mind, the 2023 legislative session was, in many ways, a relentless attack on our collective goal to create a more equitable and just Nebraska. 

During bill introduction, we watched as senators introduced bill after bill designed to take away our rights. While bills expanding and protecting rights were also proposed, we realized early on that much of our time during session would be spent playing defense on a host of harmful pieces of legislation that would have devastating consequences if passed. As an organization, the ACLU of Nebraska engaged on roughly 250 individual pieces of legislation this session, including monitoring bills, submitting comments, testifying at hearings in a variety of committees, and helping to organize advocates and members of the public from across the state to engage on the issues that matter most to them.

The obvious lowpoint of the session was the passage of LB 574, the final version of which includes both provisions banning gender-related care for Nebraska youth as well as a 12-week abortion ban. The abortion amendment to LB 574 came as a political reaction to the rightful defeat of LB 626, a six-week abortion ban. We are currently fighting in court to invalidate LB 574 on the grounds that it violates the single-subject rule of Nebraska’s Constitution.

Even during this difficult session, we were able to secure significant victories. To begin, LB 630, a bill introduced by Senator Terrell McKinney to protect students from discrimination based on hairstyles, natural hair, and certain head coverings including tribal regalia passed into law as part of another bill. Aside from protecting students’ rights to be their authentic selves in school, LB 630 and the work leading up to it represented an intentional and strategic collaboration between the ACLU of Nebraska and partners at I Be Black Girl, the Nebraska Indian Education Association, #FreetheHair, and the Muslim Law Students’ Association. In collaboration with Senator McKinney, this coalition worked together to enshrine these protections into law from the initial gathering of data, authoring and publishing a report, planning and executing an effective and well-orchestrated public hearing, finding a vehicle for its passage, and now raising awareness about the new law and monitoring implementation into the future.

Fortunately, thanks in no small part to strong and steady advocacy, we achieved victory in preventing forward momentum on other threats to our rights. That includes bills designed to undermine the rights of students, such as a bill that could have chilled classroom conversations on race and racism and denied students an accurate and complete education.  In addition, we saw no forward movement on an attempt to roll back an increase to the minimum wage as supported by voters and a ban on trans students using facilities and participating in sports consistent with their gender identity.

Senators passed a modest, yet important criminal justice reform bill in LB 50 (Sen. Wayne) as well as a bill preventing the suspension of the youngest students (Sen. McKinney). Legislation that allows youth aging out of juvenile probation to participate in the Bridge to Independence (B2I) program to provide crucial financial support and resources passed this session (Sen. Dungan). Senator John Fredrickson’s bill preventing public colleges from asking about a person’s criminal history or juvenile court record as part of its application and admission process except as required by state and federal law also passed into law. Additionally, portions of provisions originally introduced by Senator John Cavanaugh to end the practice of home equity theft passed into law. Home equity theft describes a process whereby investors can pay overdue taxes on a property, obtain the tax lien and after three years of paying taxes, seek the deed to the property and get a windfall on a sale because there is no requirement that homeowners were compensated for the equity they had built in their properties. The passed legislation changes this process and requires homeowners to be rightfully compensated for the equity if their property is subject to a third party tax lien. This is particularly important because we know that home equity theft disproportionately affects the elderly, people working to make ends meet, and people of color. It bears mention that the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously against home equity theft.

Finally, a high point throughout the 2023 legislative session was the unprecedented sustained engagement from the Second House, which included Nebraskans from across the state. We consistently saw packed hearing rooms in which some were unfairly turned away and prevented from testifying. We saw Nebraskans filling the rotunda, imploring state senators to stop the attacks on trans youth and abortion rights. We saw more Nebraskans than ever before engaging with their legislators. This kind of engagement sustained over the long-term is impossible for our elected leaders to ignore. Nebraskans made their voices heard this session and we know they will continue to do so. Protecting our civil rights and civil liberties takes all of us working together and we were grateful to be in this work with all of you during the 2023 session.