By John Celock
North Dakota lawmakers Thursday defeated legislation that would have added sexual orientation to the state’s non-discrimination code.
The state House of Representatives voted 35-56 to defeat the legislation, which had previously passed the state Senate. The vote came after an emotional debate, dominated by Democratic lawmakers, where legislators stressed the need to make the state open to everyone.
“With a word change in our policy we can say North Dakota is open to business, we’re open to a talented workforce,” Rep. Joshua Boschee (D-Fargo), the first openly gay member of the North Dakota Legislature said during his debate.
Boschee and other lawmakers have been pressing the LGBT non-discrimination legislation for several years. Already several cities in the state have adopted local ordinances to prevent LGBT non-discrimination.
During the debate, supporters said the bill is needed to tell the state’s LGBT population that they are welcome in the state and to send a message to business that North Dakota is inclusive. Lawmakers said that they knew of North Dakota residents who have left the state because they are gay and the LGBT is not a protected class in the state.
Rep. Pamela Anderson (D-Fargo) told her colleagues that she spoke with a friend of hers who has a gay son and that they friend told her about how she is happy that she owns a business that can employee her son who does not face potential firing because of his sexual orientation. Anderson said her friend was also happy that her son and his partner could reside in a neighboring state that had a non-discrimination law in effect.
Boschee said that the bill is needed to address what he said is a fear in the state’s LGBT population of potential discrimination. He said that while discrimination is not widespread, there are many anecdotes. Boschee said the fear includes being denied housing by listing a partner on a rental form or losing a job of 15 years because you refer to a partner one day.
Rep. Thomas Beadle (R-Fargo) told the House that a vote against the bill said “our state is only open to some.” He said he took issue with those who said that gay people are choosing to be gay.
“I rise today because I don’t believe that being gay is an activity or a choice,” Beadle said. “It is who they are.”
Beadle said that if lawmakers wanted to level the playing field in North Dakota society, they would vote for the bill and add “the last group under the umbrella.” Beadle also sought to reassure Republicans that the idea has received Republican support from former President George W. Bush, former first lady Laura Bush, former Vice President Dick Cheney. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
House Human Services Committee Chairman Robin Weisz (R-Hurdsfield) told the House that his committee heard six hours of testimony on the bill and said the committee did not see the legislation as fixing a problem. He said that the committee did not hear any evidence of discrimination. The Human Services Committee recommended that the House not pass the bill. Under legislative bills all bills receive a vote in the full House after a committee hearing.
“I want this to be clear to everyone that no one on the committee believes in discrimination. This bill is not about discrimination,” Weisz said. “This bill is about adding a protected class to an activity or behavior. We heard a lot of testimony on the perceived idea that discrimination is rampant in ND, but we did not receive evidence of this.”
Weisz said that even if the bill were to pass, it would not end discrimination. He said that people have biases and that discrimination would always exist.
Assistant House Minority Leader Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) told his colleagues that the bill would say that state is welcoming to business. He noted that with the recent backlash over religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas, North Dakota could send a message of inclusion to the country.
“As the supporters testified they want to see North Dakota take the same path as colleagues in other states and add sexual orientation to our discrimination code,” Mock said.