A North Dakota Senate committee has offered amendments that Democrats say would water down an anti-discrimination bill and weaken existing law.

Senate Bill 2252, in its original form, would add sexual orientation to provisions banning discrimination in the workplace, housing, government and public services. The Senate Judiciary Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on the measure earlier this month.

Under an amendment proposed by the committee, the bill would change to establish that North Dakota does not “condone discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” However, the measure would not include sexual orientation as a protected class for discrimination purposes, meaning there still would be no recourse for people who experience discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Senate is expected to take up the amendment this afternoon.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said he offered the amendments as a compromise position, because the committee did not seem inclined to give a “do pass” recommendation to the original legislation. He said social change never goes “as fast as those advocating for change would like it to be.”

“I regard it as sort of a compromise, but it really is saying that the state of North Dakota as a state does not condone that policy or that practice,” Hogue said.

Other amendments to the bill, unrelated to the sexual orientation provisions, would move the age at which people are protected from age-related discrimination from 40 to 55 and would limit back pay to people who experience employment discrimination from the two years currently in law to one year.

“We introduced this bill on a bipartisan basis to prevent discrimination,” Sen. Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said in a statement. “Somewhat stunningly, the amendment would permit discrimination against more people on the basis of age. If these amendments pass, it actually becomes a pro-discrimination bill.”

Hogue said the current age of 40 is based on federal law, and the committee did not feel it was appropriate for North Dakota.

“The age discrimination at the age of 40 is abused tremendously in our process, and we wanted to correct that abuse,” Hogue said. “We don’t think North Dakota employers are discriminating against employees on the basis of age when the employees are 40.”

He also said limiting back pay to one year rather than two is because of North Dakota’s low unemployment rate. It is unrealistic to think it takes people in North Dakota two years to find a new job, Hogue said.

But Democrats in the Senate feel the bill would weaken, rather than strengthen, North Dakota’s anti-discrimination laws if passed with the amendment.

“The North Dakota Human Rights Act has been on the books in North Dakota since 1983,” Schneider said. “To use this bill to weaken the act is wrong. It is devious. The Senate should reject these amendments.”

The AARP North Dakota came out strongly against the changes related to age discrimination and back pay. In an email to senators that was provided to media, AARP lobbyist Josh Askvig urged lawmakers to vote against the amendment. Since the original intent of the bill was about sexual orientation, there was no public hearing related to the changes for age discrimination, he wrote.

Askvig pointed out that changing the age from 40 to 55 would put North Dakota out of line with federal age discrimination laws. The AARP also is against the changes in the length of back pay.

“This limit may seem practical at a time of low unemployment, but in essence it is penalizing a worker who was unfairly dismissed if they are unable to find new employment,” he wrote.

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.