WAYNE, Neb. — The Nebraska State College System approved changes to two nondiscrimination policies this week over the objections of Gov. Pete Ricketts and a pair of religious groups.
The changes passed on a 4-2 vote Thursday by the Board of Trustees.
According to the State College System, the new policies ask employees to respect the chosen name and gender identity of other employees and provide greater clarity on the types of discrimination prohibited on campus.
Both changes bring the system, which has campuses in Peru, Wayne and Chadron, in line with other schools in Nebraska and elsewhere, administrators said.
While gender identity discrimination has been banned on the system’s campuses since 2015, Ricketts, the Nebraska Family Alliance and the Nebraska Catholic Conference criticized the changes as out of touch.
Ricketts, in a Wednesday letter urging the board to reject the update, painted the language as “a concept being pushed at the national level by political activists” that is opposed by most Nebraskans.
In particular, the governor and the religious groups said the policy asking faculty and staff to “respect the chosen name and gender identity of other employees whenever possible” would discourage employees and students from speaking freely.
Kristin Divel, the State College System’s general counsel, said there have been no problems after an identical policy was passed for students in July.
Speaking to the board, Divel said the University of Nebraska, which put similar policies in place last year, also has not reported any problems.
The board also approved expanded definitions of several protected classes.
The changes arose out of passage of Legislative Bill 451 earlier this year. The bill by State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha expanded Nebraska’s laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment to include hair texture and protective hairstyles.
The State College System reworked the policy banning discrimination on the basis of age, race, color, disability, gender identity, national origin, religion, sex and sexual orientation with definitions of each.
The original definition of gender identity discrimination, which the system pulled from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, included “refusing to allow a person to use the restroom associated with the gender the person identifies with.”
The Nebraska Family Alliance and the Nebraska Catholic Conference criticized the language, saying it could put women in danger on campus by allowing “biological males who identify as female” access to women’s bathrooms.
The State College System changed the language before Thursday’s meeting, removing the reference to restrooms, but Ricketts suggested that the policy would still “increase the risk of sexual assault” on campus.
“Even with the removal of the specific reference, acknowledging gender identity as a protected class still risks giving a guarantee of access,” he said. “Nebraska should be protecting our young people from a loss of privacy and safety — not inviting it.”
Several people who spoke during the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting — including students at Wayne State College — also raised the idea that the policy change would allow men access to women’s bathrooms.
But sexual assault advocates and law enforcement officials in cities and states with laws prohibiting gender identity discrimination have said there is no evidence to support claims that those policies lead to higher rates of sexual assault.
Leaders in Wayne State’s Student Senate, including President Blake Aspen, said the change was unnecessary and “a solution in search of a problem.”
Abbey Larson, a junior from Omaha who is president of Pride, told the board that the changes were a good step toward creating a more diverse and inclusive community at Wayne State.
Voting against the policy changes were Chairman Jess Zeiss of Omaha and Trustee Bob Engles of Auburn.
Matt Blomstedt, who serves as an ex officio member of the board as Nebraska’s education commissioner, was absent.