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With 'inclusion resolution,' Grand Forks wades into cultural debate

Grand Forks City Council member Sandi Marshall said she wants to tell the world her city is a welcoming, inclusive place to live. It hasn't been that simple. Marshall introduced an "inclusion resolution" at Monday's council committee meeting. It'...

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Grand Forks City Council member Sandi Marshall said she wants to tell the world her city is a welcoming, inclusive place to live.

It hasn’t been that simple.

Marshall introduced an “inclusion resolution” at Monday’s council committee meeting. It’s a statement of values -- not a law or regulation -- that disavows bigotry and advertises Grand Forks’ better nature. Notably, it says “promoting differentiation or superiority” for a list of identities, like race, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation, is “scientifically false, morally condemnable, hateful, socially unjust and dangerous.”

Marshall said she’s trying to officialize a positive, inclusive city philosophy -- not create a code of conduct. And while most agree Grand Forks ought to be inclusive, the resolution’s details are proving politically charged, drawing passionate public comment and leaving city leaders debating its exact language. The debate is reminiscent of the city’s 2015 consideration of a diversity commission -- a never-formed group that would have advocated for local minorities’ interests.

“In my opinion, this is anti-God, anti-Constitution, anti-America and anti-common sense,” said Terry Bjerke, a former City Council member and 2016 mayoral candidate, who characterized the document as a politically correct manifesto at Monday night’s meeting. “No City Council is ever going to tell me what to think.”

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City leaders had more moderate criticisms. City Council member Danny Weigel wondered what it means for a local religious group that disagrees with gay marriage. Council President Dana Sande said local churchgoers hold similar concerns and has questioned resolution language that says Grand Forks is “committed to establish” a welcoming community -- we already are one, he said.

Those concerns resulted in a 7-0 vote to table the matter. It’s expected to resurface this coming Monday before the full City Council, when Weigel and Marshall will provide a revised draft.

Competing concerns Some observers rankle at the first draft’s perceived politics, while others see it as an invitation for marginalized residents to contribute. Robin David is a Grand Forks leader for multiple new American advocacy groups, and she’s concerned that Sande’s edit -- nixing the word “establish” -- could mean ignoring uncomfortable parts of Grand Forks’ history. African American Charles Thurber was lynched in Grand Forks in 1882 , she said, and as recently as two years ago a racially charged firebombing destroyed the Somali-owned Juba Cafe .

“There’s never, I think, a bad time to make a statement like this -- making sure that all members of a community feel welcome is critical for their ability to be engaged, productive members of the community,” David said on Tuesday.

The resolution also comes as the Trump administration pursues divisive policies that have been criticized and racially charged -- including its pursuit of a travel ban from many majority-Muslim countries. The Supreme Court allowed a version of the ban to take effect earlier this month as it’s debated in lower courts.

“There have been threats to the integration of immigrants for kind of a long time now. During the last year particularly. That certainly is something I’m conscious of,” Marshall said. “(But) I can’t say that was the driver for this resolution coming forward now in and of itself.”

Marshall has said passing the resolution would take the philosophy that some community leaders are already practicing -- like in the New Flavors food truck aimed at helping new Americans build a restaurant business -- and make it official. It sets the tone for further welcoming policies, she said.

Similar resolutions were also passed in Fargo and Moorhead earlier this fall, by a margin of 4-1 and 8-0, respectively, which Marshall said inspired her own. The resolutions are nearly identical, though Fargo’s notably omits some of the stronger condemnations of “differentiation or superiority,” which was among the most concerning language for Grand Forks leaders.

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Weigel has suggested alternate language, which says the community “condemn(s) harassment, assault, or intimidation” on range of identities, instead of condemning “promoting differentiation or superiority,” which he has said is simpler. His suggested list of identities also says “gender” instead of “gender identity,” and omits “country of origin,” though when contacted on Friday, he said those omissions were unintentional and that his document’s language had been borrowed from another community.

Weigel said he’s pleased with how the redrafting process is progressing, and Marshall has indicated her willingness to work with him. She said she’s more concerned about the welcoming spirit of the document than some of its finer details.

Kyle Thorson is an organizer behind Grand Forks Pride, an LGBT event. Asked about changes that might be aimed at people uncomfortable with gay marriage, he said he wasn’t concerned -- the changes discussed didn’t seem to infringe on gay rights, he said, but allowed churchgoers to express their beliefs in their house of worship.

“This is a statement of how do we move together as a community,” he said. “No advocate or anybody should be out to cut the limbs off of somebody else because of what they believe.”

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