BISMARCK — North Dakota lawmakers are making another push to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation with a pair of scaled-back proposals meant to be more palatable to the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Rep. Mary Johnson, R-Fargo, introduced a bipartisan bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public accommodations or services. State law already includes protections for race, sex, religion, national origin and other factors.
Johnson said the bill mirrors legislation that failed two years ago with one exception: It doesn't cover gender identity. She said the proposal represents a compromise that may have a better chance of passing the Legislature, but it's generating pushback from LGBT advocates who argue against excluding transgender people.
House lawmakers easily defeated an anti-discrimination bill in 2017, which was the fourth time such a proposal failed in the previous decade, with one opponent arguing state law couldn't "differentiate" whether somebody was gay. Republican Gov. Doug Burgum supported that legislation.
"I hated to exclude gender identity, but I'm hoping for the best with this bill," Johnson said Wednesday, Jan. 16.
The bill includes exemptions allowing religious organizations to establish hiring criteria for employees and volunteers in religious positions, but Christopher Dodson, the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said exemptions in past legislation "went backwards in what we currently have in the law."
As of the end of 2016, 20 states and the District of Columbia banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Johnson disputed any arguments that LGBT discrimination isn't a problem in North Dakota because she has "firsthand knowledge" of someone being fired over their homosexuality.
"That sort of injustice spurs me to action," she said. "When a state fails to act to protect the rights of a minority group that's being oppressed, I believe that is state-sanctioned discrimination."
But the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition won't support Johnson's bill over the gender identity exclusion, the group's Legislative Coordinator Elizabeth Loos said. She said transgender people are "vulnerable" and have higher rates of suicide and depression.
"We believe that all people deserve those protections," Loos said. "I think Mary Johnson and the other legislators who sponsored the bill are well-intentioned, but it's not acceptable to exclude transgender people."
House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the state's first openly gay legislator, said he favors a brewing Senate proposal that would be "fully inclusive of the LGBT community" but would focus only on housing and employment. Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, expected to introduce her bill soon.
Boschee said Bakke's bill should alleviate "any concerns people have previously testified against in terms of restrooms, public accommodations such as baking a cake." The U.S. Supreme Court last year sided with a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, but justices said the outcome of similar cases "must await further elaboration in the courts."