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Fargo leaders push for discrimination ban

FARGO - Grand Forks leaders recently announced they could soon prohibit the city as an employer from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but Fargo leaders have much bigger aspirations for a similar ordinance here.

A group of city leaders tentatively plan to meet on Friday to discuss writing Fargo's own ordinance banning such discrimination, Commissioner Melissa Sobolik told The Forum on Tuesday. That group will include City Commissioner Mike Williams, she said.

Sobolik said she wants an ordinance in front of the commission within a month.

"And I think that's doable," she said.

The Grand Forks ordinance - which was approved by the city's finance committee Monday and will be considered by its City Council this upcoming Monday - bans the city as an employer from discriminating against employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It doesn't regulate employment practices of private businesses.

Sobolik wants city officials here to consider an ordinance that would outlaw discrimination against all city residents on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in both employment and housing, not just city employees.

"At this point, we're wide open, and we'd like to do as much as possible that we can actually get passed," Sobolik said.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said Tuesday he doesn't believe the issue is a major one for Fargo, and that he isn't about to suggest Fargo pass an ordinance because Grand Forks might.

"If that comes forward, fine. But to go out there and solicit it because of some other community - I just don't think that's an issue. I really don't," Walaker said.

Cities 'lead the way'

While Walaker said it's not on his radar, Sobolik said an ordinance like this has been on her mind since state lawmakers shot down a similar proposal in February.

Unlike North Dakota, state law in Minnesota bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Same-sex marriage will also be legal in Minnesota starting Aug. 1, after the state last month became the first in the Midwest to approve it by legislative action.

"I think being so close to Minnesota that we need to be proactive," Sobolik said. "Minnesota's making great strides. And even though North Dakota didn't pass it in the state Legislature, we started talking about it as city leaders as soon as that happened and decided it's something that the city can do."

The group set to meet Friday to discuss possible language for a Fargo ordinance includes Sobolik, Williams, state Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, who also serves on the Human Relations Commission, Fargo School Board member John Strand and Dave Lanpher, chairman of the Human Relations Commission.

Human rights leaders here have been discussing ideas for this ordinance for some time but were waiting for Grand Forks to write its ordinance, as they were "way ahead of the curve" on the issue, Lanpher said.

The Grand Forks proposal was written by City Attorney Howard Swanson and would amend a city ordinance to include "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" in a list of factors the city, as an employer, cannot use to discriminate against employees or potential employees.

Swanson told the city's finance committee Monday that he based the language on similar laws enacted in other states.

Leaders in Fargo and Grand Forks have been in conversation with Grafton and Mandan about drafting similar ordinances together, and they hope multiple cities teaming up to pass similar ordinances will pressure the state Legislature to do the same.

"We need progress in the state of North Dakota on LGBT rights and protections," Lanpher said. "And since the state government has chosen not to deal with this issue, it's going to be up to the cities to lead the way."

'A bit more challenging'

Sobolik's hope for an ordinance with broader implications than the city's own employment practices may run into legal issues.

Grand Forks Councilman Bret Weber, a proponent for the amendment there, told The Forum on Tuesday that the city can only affect the hiring of its own employees, otherwise federal labor laws kick in.

Federal labor laws do not currently protect LGBT individuals, although 49 senators now co-sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, signed onto the bill as a cosponsor on Friday, according to a report by the Huffington Post.

But Sobolik and Lanpher said they hope the Fargo ordinance will be able to protect all LGBT residents of Fargo, although Sobolik noted it could be "a bit more challenging" than a ban on discrimination against city employees.

Walaker called Fargo "as friendly as any community," and said flood control is the city's number one issue right now.

But Sobolik said there is no law on the books that allows LGBT residents to fight back against discrimination.

"I know personally of a few people who have felt discriminated against, who felt they were evicted from their housing for this reason," she said.

Fargo city ordinance 15-02 establishes the Human Relations Commission and states that body will "discourage all forms of discrimination" based on a number of factors like race, color, religion, sex and sexual orientation.

But Sobolik said that ordinance has no teeth. She ultimately wants the new law to give the city some enforcement powers and provide a means for those LGBT residents to seek restitution.

"You can discourage things, but until you actually have some enforcement behind it, nothing will really change," she said.