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ND House kills bill outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation

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Photo by TOM STROMME / Bismarck Tribune. State Rep. Kylie Oversen (D-Grand Forks) urged members to vote in favor of SB 2279 during floor debate on Thursday afternoon. 3 / 6
TOM STROMME / Bismarck Tribune. Rep. Thomas Beadle (R-Fargo) said the public opinion is changing on the issue and urged members to support SB 2279 in his remarks to House members on Thursday. 4 / 6
Photo by TOM STROMME / Bismarck Tribune. House majority leader Rep. Al Carlson (R-Fargo) urged a no vote on SB 2279 saying "do we condone discrimination if we vote no on this bill? Absolutely not." 5 / 6
Photo by TOM STROMME / Bismarck Tribune State Rep. Joshua Boschee (D-Fargo) said in remarks urging support for SB 2279 it would signal that North Dakota is a welcome place and accepting of the LGBT community. 6 / 6

BISMARCK – For the third time in six years, North Dakota lawmakers have killed legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, despite warnings from some Democrats and Republicans that it could tarnish the growing state’s image and attract backlash similar to what Indiana and Arkansas have faced in recent days.

Kevin Tengesdal, a gay U.S. Navy veteran from Bismarck who had testified for the bill and helped fill the House balcony in support of it Thursday, brushed away tears and hugged fellow supporters outside the chamber after the vote.

“It was disheartening. When can our voice be heard?” he said.

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Gov. Jack Dalrymple, a Republican, said the state should have at least established protections in the areas of housing and employment.

“I’m concerned that we have missed an opportunity to affirm what North Dakotans already believe, which is that discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation is not acceptable,” he said in a statement.

House lawmakers spent about 90 minutes debating Senate Bill 2279, which passed the Senate 25-22 in February and would have added sexual orientation to state law that already protects against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, physical or mental disability or status with respect to marriage or public assistance. Complaints would have been investigated by the state Department of Labor and Human Rights.

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, who carried the bill from the House Human Services Committee with an 11-2 do-not-pass recommendation, said the committee listened to a lot of testimony on the “perceived” idea that discrimination is rampant in North Dakota, but “did not receive any testimony that showed any outright discrimination going on.”

“If we’re going to add this as a protected class, we need to be sure that we’re solving a problem,” he said.

That drew a sharp response from Democrats, who referred to the more than 20 people who testified in favor of the bill, including some who traveled across the state to share stories of being mistreated at work because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, a bill sponsor and the state’s first openly gay lawmaker, said that while the discrimination may not be blatant, “We know that it’s happening.

“People have testified that it’s their religious right to do so,” he said. “So what more evidence do we need to say that we need a path for people to visit with their government and say, ‘This happened, will you help me out?’ ”

Twenty-one states, including neighboring Minnesota, have laws protecting workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Boschee noted that two more – Indiana and Arkansas – are moving toward similar protections amid a storm of backlash over their religious-freedom legislation that business leaders and civil rights groups worry would further discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

A dozen Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the bipartisan bill, including Rep. Thomas Beadle, R-Fargo, a bill sponsor. He said many large employers and prominent businesspeople in North Dakota backed the legislation, fearing its defeat would send a message that the nation’s fastest-growing state “is only open to some.”

“And while we can see the backlash in Indiana, the mere perception of LGBT discrimination will have negative consequences for our state,” he said.

House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, opposed the bill, saying existing state law provides sufficient protections and the bill’s definitions were too vague and would have unknown consequences for businesses.

“I think there’s an unending list of ramifications for doing this,” he said.

Assistant Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, who called the issue “the discrimination movement of our generation,” requested Thursday that the bill be divided into two parts.

That required House members to vote separately on banning discrimination in public accommodations and services – a concern raised by bill opponents who worried that business owners would be forced to provide goods and services counter to their religious beliefs – and in housing, employment, credit transactions and brokerage services.

The House defeated the public accommodations division 30-61, with three members absent or not voting. The second division failed 35-56, defeating the bill as a whole.

The margin was close to the House’s 34-54 vote that killed a similar bill in 2009 after it had passed the Senate 27-19. Two years ago, the Senate rejected a similar bill 21-26.

Boschee said Thursday’s defeat was frustrating, but he predicted the legislation will keep coming back in future sessions until it passes – a sentiment shared by Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, who said the emails she received from constituents were 4-to-1 in favor of the bill.

“It will happen. It is a matter of when,” she said.

Mike Nowatzki

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