North Dakota Senate committee rejects LGBT anti-discrimination bill, but amendments expected

North Dakota Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, testifies in support of her bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service
North Dakota Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, testifies in support of her bill banning discrimination based on sexual orientation Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Legislature re-opened the debate on banning discrimination based on sexual orientation Wednesday, Jan. 23, as supporters who again urged lawmakers to add LGBT protections to state law were turned down by a Senate committee that refused to endorse a proposed bill.

But the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee later said she expected the panel to consider bill amendments.

Supporters of Senate Bill 2303 packed a small committee room at the state Capitol, forcing some attendees to sit on the floor or stand in the hall. The hearing featured many familiar arguments and faces on both sides of the debate.

But the bill’s chief backer said the legislation represents a scaled-back proposal from what was easily defeated in the House two years ago. Grand Forks Democratic Sen. JoNell Bakke said it focuses on banning discrimination in housing and employment.

“All of us, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender should be judged only on our qualifications and our job performance. Nothing more and nothing less,” said Elizabeth Loos, legislative coordinator for the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition.

The Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t immediately act on the bill after the hearing but later gave it a “do not pass” recommendation in a 5-1 vote, with Bakke dissenting. The committee's chairwoman, Bismarck Republican Sen. Diane Larson, said the bill had "troublesome language" and lawmakers were unconvinced it would prevent discrimination.

But Larson later said the bill would return to her committee with some amendments from Bakke.

Bakke’s bill is one of two sexual orientation anti-discrimination bills introduced in the Republican-controlled Legislature this year.

A House bill largely mirrors the failed 2017 legislation but doesn’t cover gender identity, a change meant to make it more palatable to lawmakers who have previously rejected the legislation. Last session marked the fourth time such a proposal had failed in the previous decade.

But the Human Rights Coalition and the state’s first openly gay lawmaker, House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, favor Bakke’s bill because it doesn’t exclude transgender people. The House bill hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Supporters of the Senate bill, who testified for roughly an hour and easily outnumbered the legislation’s opponents, said it would send a welcoming signal to the LGBT community and discourage discrimination.

Nicole Morrison of Bismarck, who is married to a woman, cited instances of suicide among LGBT youth in North Dakota.

“It needs to stop. They need to believe they belong,” she said.

But Morrison said the bill may face slim odds of success until there’s “new blood” in the Legislature.

“I don’t know what else I can say to try to convince this body to accept what North Dakotans want,” said Vallie Needham of Bismarck, who told the committee she is a bisexual woman who is married to a man.

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. North Dakota law already includes protections based on sex, race, religion, national origin and other factors.

Opponents warned the bill’s protections are broader than proponents suggested, includes “poorly written” religious exemptions and would be a step toward discrimination against those with “traditional views.” Testimony from Mark Jorritsma, the executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota who said the bill would force women and girls to share bathrooms and locker rooms with men, drew pushback from Bakke.

“I sense a fear you have that individuals in this community are going to commit criminal acts because of their sexual orientation,” she said.

Jorritsma responded that his testimony wasn’t meant as an attack on the LGBT community. But he said the bill would create opportunities for people, regardless of their sexual orientation, “to take advantage of it and therefore go into a locker room with your wife, with your daughter, your granddaughter.”

Republican Gov. Doug Burgum supported last session’s failed bill but generally doesn’t comment on pending legislation. His spokesman Mike Nowatzki said the governor stood by his previous statement on the issue.

“All North Dakotans deserve to be treated equally and live free of discrimination,” Burgum said in a statement two years ago. “As we compete with other states to fill the thousands of open jobs in North Dakota, we must be a place where everyone feels welcome.”