Small steps for equality in North Dakota

Grand Forks, North Dakota made news in mid-June when the city council voted to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in municipal employment. It’s the only city in North Dakota to have such protections, but Grand Forks’ new ordinance has spawned similar efforts in the state which currently lacks any protections for LGBT North Dakotans. But it’s also drawn the chorus of religious right types who want any protections for LGBT eliminated.

Earlier this month, the Grand Forks Herald waded into the debate, lending its support for the ordinance.

“Ours is a pluralistic society, one that takes pride in protecting minorities from exclusion on the basis of their minority status,” wrote the paper. “In years past, one could argue that homosexuality was too “foreign” or “unnatural” to deserve protection; but events in Minnesota and at Grand Forks Air Force Base, among many other places, have proven that outlook wrong.
The change isn’t just coming, in other words. It’s here. It’s bracketing Grand Forks. And it’s reasonable for the city to act to accommodate it.”

The Rev. Keith Mills of the United Church of Christ of Grand Forks wrote last week, “Those who would argue today against the full participation of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the life of this community are simply wrong.”

But, just as soon as support for a new anti-discrimination ordinance for housing grew, the North Dakota Family Alliance, a member of the religious right Family Policy Councils founded in part by James Dobson, weighed in.

The group’s head, Tom Freier, likened the bill to religious intolerance in a column for the Grand Forks Herald:

But who is missing? Important, anyone whose sincerely held religious beliefs do not allow him or her to affirm or approve of sexual relationships outside of marriage. If you own a rental with five units, you are not exempt, and your management rights of your own property — as guided by your First Amendment right to exercise your sincerely held religious belief — are not recognized.
The residents of Grand Forks must act. They cannot allow their own city government to be complicit in — and, indeed a cause of — religious intolerance rather than adhering to fundamental and previously unquestioned legal and constitutional requirements to protect freedom of conscience. Strong, uncompromised protections for religious freedom protect the rights of all North Dakotans — Jews, Evangelicals, Catholics, Muslims and all other
religious believers — to live out their lives in accordance with their own faith. Our religious liberty is at stake. Over the years, the residents of Grand Forks, including the men and women of faith, have displayed a strong sense of respect, tolerance and love for all. That sense of kinship will not be enhanced by dividing rather than unifying, elevating a special class at the expense of others or trampling on First Amendment rights. Grand Forks already has adopted an ordinance making LGBT individuals part of a protected class for the city’s own hiring practices. But it is an entirely different thing to impose new housing policies that impose on private individuals’ religious freedoms.

If the opposition to banning discrimination in employment is any indication, the council will be set to hear about “evil.” During the ordinance’s first reading on June 17, Council member Terry Bjerke said he was worried about girls using boys restrooms and vice versa, according to meeting minutes. He referred to the a case in Colorado where a transgender first grader won the right to use a restroom that reflected her gender identity. Bjerke was the only city council member to vote against the ordinance at first reading.

“I believe I will see in America where a pastor preaching against homosexuals will be considered a hate crime, he’ll probably end up in jail, I firmly believe the government will go after churches tax exemptions, that’s where I think this is all going to go,” Bjerke told the committee.

“I can find a tall person, a skinny person, an overweight person, a short person, a liberal, a conservative and 6,000 other descriptions of people and we can add that to the list if that’s what we want to do, so in my opinion, the whole list should be deleted. I think it just opens us up to potential grievances and/or lawsuits and I think it’s bad law,” Bjerke said.

Ray Dohman, a citizen attending the meeting, told the council “I find it quite incredible you would enhance protection for homosexuals,” and “I really don’t know why you’d think of passing an evil ordinance like this.”

“Statements of fear and hatred are frequent during moments of important change. I think the endgame here is quite clear. It is to achieve the highest goals of this nation’s founding documents and that’s simply what we’re up to here,” Council Member Bret Weber told he committee according to KVRR. The ordinance passed by a wide margin.

The efforts on Grand Forks have begun a conversation in Fargo.

Fargo City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik has been pushing for an ordinance extend the city’s nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity, and to expand it to all employment in the city as well as housing. The city has an anti-discrimination ordinance on sexual orientation for employment in city government, but it does not apply to gender identity.

In July, the City Commission unanimously approved a plan to study expanding the nondiscrimination ordinance to all employers in the city and to extend it to housing. Once that process is completed, the city’s Human Rights Commission will propose an ordinance for the city council.

Outside Fargo and Grand Forks (and the University of North Dakota), protections for LGBT North Dakotans are limited.

These efforts signal slow change in the state, but change nonetheless. And that’s reflected in the state’s leaders. Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp announced earlier this year that she supports marriage equality, and she signed on as a sponsor of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

Timothy Purdon, North Dakota’s U.S. attorney, spoke at Fargo-Moorhead Pride last month. He told the LGBT community, “As long as I’m in this position, you will have an ally.”

“The Red River of the North is a great river. It is a powerful river. But it’s not a magic line that gay Americans cross and gain rights and lose rights as they go back and forth. And it shouldn’t be,” he said alluding to the stark difference between Minnesota’s and North Dakota’s laws protecting LGBT people.

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