BISMARCK -- Senate lawmakers shot down a bill Thursday that would have given gay and lesbian North Dakotans the weight of state law behind legal battles against employers or landlords who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
Senate Bill 2252 failed by a close 21-26 vote. It was a step back for the state, according to Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, after the Senate voted for a similar bill in 2009, which failed in the House.
"It's easier for people (to vote against it,) who don't experience these things," said Boschee, a co-sponsor of the bill and North Dakota's first openly gay legislator. "I was hoping it would pass, but it did get some new votes."
The bill would have added the term, "sexual orientation" to the North Dakota Human Rights Act, under the state law, which passed in 1983. The law allows individuals to seek recourse if they are discriminated against based on their age, gender, race and disability, among others. The law does not specify sexual orientation.
Those that agreed with the bill say it would create protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. But opposition says the First Amendment guarantees an individual the freedom to choose their faith, which allows them to not serve or help someone they may not agree with.
The bill first had to battle a vote over an amendment that stripped the bill of its original language in committee and added language to declare that the state does not condone discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It did not include a way for someone to seek damages for discrimination.
Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard the bill and its three hours of testimony, said the original bill didn't have the chance of passing, so he offered the amendment.
"I thought this was something we can do that would be a reasonable compromise," he said.
Hogue, and fellow committee member Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said enacting policies to try and change behavior quickly does not work.
Armstrong called it "social engineering."
"I think it's working itself out naturally," he said. "It's happening at the grassroots level, and it should."
Hogue compared the idea to former President Bill Clinton's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy, which addressed the issue of gay military members, but didn't invoke substantial policy change. After 20 years, now gay individuals are serving openly in the military.
"It does happen slowly, I don't think they appreciate that," he said about the bill's proponents. "It's not the 80-yard touchdown pass they would like, but it does get a touchdown."
Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said the amendments were "misguided."
"If we proceed with these amendments, we are saying to thousands of North Dakotans from all walks of life that we get that discrimination happens, and understand it's wrong, but if it happens to you, you're on your own," he said.
The amendment also asked to change the the age when an individual can seek legal action for age discrimination from 40 to 55.
Hogue said 40 is too low, having seen the low age abused many times as an attorney in Minot. "An employer may be more likely to (discriminate) at 55," he said.
The amendment failed 20-27.
Reach Forum News Service reporter TJ Jerke at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-255-5607