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Rental discrimination ban approved in Grand Forks

In front of a standing-room only crowd, the Grand Forks City Council passed a law Monday banning housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the city.

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In front of a standing-room only crowd, the Grand Forks City Council passed a law Monday banning housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the city.

Grand Forks becomes the first city in the state to do so, according to council members.

The council approved the law by a vote of 5-2 with members Terry Bjerke and Ken Vein dissenting.

While Vein voted against the law after seeing a lack of incident data, Bjerke said he was against identifying any group of people as a protected class -- including those already defined under state and federal law.

"How can you have equal protection and protected class in the same sentence?" he said. "There are not enough trees to cut down and paper to print the number of protected classes that could be in the ordinance."

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Once enacted, the law prohibits denying, withholding or refusing to conduct maintenance on rental property based on the sexual orientation or gender identity of the tenant.

Religious question

The council's vote came after nearly two hours of testimony from residents and its members.

Those in favor of the law argued it provided protection for people of every sexual orientation, not just gays. Opponents saw the law as a violation of property rights and religious beliefs.

To Rev. Keith Mills of United Church of Christ, religion was not an excuse to combat the law.

"Our faith is one of the leading voices of bigotry and intolerance in this culture," he said. "Jesus said if your rules are in the way of doing the most loving thing then set your rules aside, and do what's right. If City Council chooses to pass this ordinance, I believe they're doing what's right."

Others didn't see it that way.

"You do not have the right to impose that lifestyle on my religious beliefs," Grand Forks resident Jerry Hjeldsen said.

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Forced compliance

Some compared enforcing the housing law to businesses being forced to provide services to those whom they did not agree with on religious and moral levels -- something that did not sit well with Council President Hal Gershman.

"I'm Jewish. Are you saying you have a right to refuse to serve me because I'm Jewish, and I have the right to refuse to business with you because you're Christian?" he asked. "I can't believe what you're saying. It deeply disturbs me."

Others opposing the law argued there was no evidence of discrimination occurring in the community.

Resident Zack Petrick said he thought otherwise. In 2009, he came out as a gay man in a letter written and published in support the passage of a similar discrimination law at the state level.

"My landlord, and employer at the time, sat me down and said I was no better than the blacks," he said. "And he didn't say the word 'blacks.'"

Exemptions and concerns

While property owners expressed concerns for their rights, not all forms of housing are protected under the law.

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Churches and religious housing are exempt in addition to single-family homes and apartments with up to four units in which the owner resides.

Larry Richard, lawyer for the Greater Grand Forks Apartment Association, told the council his organization is in favor of expanding the discrimination ban to sexual orientation and gender identity, but the group did have concerns over punishments for landlords found to be in violation.

If a determination has been made that a property owner violated the law, the council can deny, revoke suspend or refuse to renew his or her rental license and certificate of occupancy.

Losing the occupancy certificate means that all others living on the affected property would have to leave as well, according to City Attorney Howard Swanson.

Those in violation convicted in municipal court could receive a $500 fine per violation.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1108; or send email to bjewett@gfherald.com .

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