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N.D. senators approve sexual orientation discrimination bill

BISMARCK – State senators narrowly passed a bill Tuesday that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in North Dakota, after rejecting similar legislation last session.

The chamber approved Senate Bill 2279 on a 25-22 vote. It now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

A similar bill failed 21-26 in the Senate two years ago. In 2009, a similar bill passed the Senate 27-19 before failing in the House 34-54.

The current bill would add sexual orientation to state law that already includes protections against discrimination based on race, religion, sex, national origin, age and physical or mental disabilities.

“This is a bill that truly states North Dakota values – respect and acceptance of all our people, regardless of who they love,” said the bill’s prime sponsor, Sen. Carolyn Nelson, D-Fargo.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that gave the bill a 4-2 do-not-pass recommendation, said the panel had no witnesses come forward to say they were discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation, either by the government or private sector.

“We really did not see a problem, at least the problem was never defined to us in terms of either explicit discrimination or even implicit discrimination,” he said.

Hogue also disagreed with the notion that the state is outwardly hostile toward gay and lesbian residents.

“There’s no culture that is suggesting that young gay men and young gay women should move outside of the state,” he said.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 21 states and Washington, D.C., offer protections for residents based on sexual orientation and 10 other states have sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws or policies that only cover public employees.

The North Dakota bill defines sexual orientation as “actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity.” Exemptions are provided for religious organizations or associations that limit employees and volunteers, or admission to churches and parochial schools, based on religious tenets.

Nelson said the bipartisan bill protects gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents from discrimination when it comes to employment, public accommodations and services, credit transactions, housing, brokerage services, insurance and jury duty.

“They are folks we work with and the worshippers we sit next to in the pews on Sunday. They are our friends and our families. They are people that we love,” she said.

Sen. Erin Oban, D-Bismarck, said whether lawmakers feel being LGBT is right or wrong is irrelevant.

“Either we believe it’s OK under the law to fire people from their jobs or kick them out of their apartments for who they are, or we don’t,” she said.

The Wyoming Senate passed a similar bill last week on a 24-6 vote, but it’s expected to face a tougher road in the House.

Sen. Ron Sorvaag, a Republican and small-business owner from Fargo, raised concerns about the “perceived” language in the bill and its potential effect on company-customer interactions, noting his employees are often multitasking.

“If they make a mistake and the person feels they perceived them to be something different than what they are, I’ll be sued,” he said. “That’s happening all over the country, and it’s bankrupting a lot of small businesses.”

Hogue, an attorney who works in employment law, said that was one of the committee’s fundamental problems with the current bill as well as the similar bill last session.

“You get to litigate based on whether or not somebody thinks you might be gay. That’s part of the problem,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, also an attorney who works in employment law, responded, “As long as you’re not discriminating based on your perception of an individual’s sexual orientation, you’re not going to run afoul of the law. It’s just that simple.”

Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, a bill co-sponsor and North Dakota’s first openly gay lawmaker, said he was pleased with the Senate vote and expects the bill to face a tougher road in the House, which tends to be more conservative. He said public opinion toward LGBT issues has changed a lot since the House last voted on the issue in 2009.

T.J. Jerke, a lobbyist for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, said the Senate’s vote reflects the attitude of the majority of North Dakotans who want to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The coalition recently released the results of a statewide poll conducted by DFM Research in St. Paul that showed 59 percent of North Dakotans would vote “yes” if given the option on SB2279. The poll of 400 residents over age 18 was conducted Jan. 26-31 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

How North Dakota senators voted on Senate Bill 2279

YES

Tyler Axness, D-Fargo

Brad Bekkedahl, R-Williston

Kyle R. Davison, R-Fargo

Dick Dever, R-Bismarck

Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere

Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo

John Grabinger, D-Jamestown

Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford

Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks

Karen K. Krebsbach, R-Minot

Lonnie J. Laffen, R-Grand Forks

Judy Lee, R-West Fargo

Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt

Tim Mathern, D-Fargo

Philip M. Murphy, D-Portland

Carolyn C. Nelson, D-Fargo

Erin Oban, D-Bismarck

David O’Connell, D-Lansford

Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake

Larry J. Robinson, D-Valley City

Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks

George Sinner, D-Fargo

Ronald Sorvaag, R-Fargo

Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks

John M. Warner, D-Ryder

NO

Howard C. Anderson, Jr., R-Turtle Lake

Kelly M. Armstrong, R-Dickinson

Bill L. Bowman, R-Bowman

Randall A. Burckhard, R-Minot

Tom Campbell, R-Grafton

Ron Carlisle R-Bismarck

Jonathan Casper, R-Bismarck

Dwight Cook, R-Mandan

Robert Erbele, R-Lehr

David Hogue, R-Minot

Ralph Kilzer, R-Bismarck

Jerry Klein, R-Fessenden

Oley Larsen, R-Minot

Gary A. Lee, R-Casselton

Larry Luick, R-Fairmount

Joe Miller, R-Park River

Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck

David S. Rust, R-Tioga

Donald Schaible, R-Mott

Jessica Unruh, R-Beulah

Terry M. Wanzek, R-Jamestown

Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.

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