Describing herself as a longtime “silent” supporter of gay rights, Kim Riedlinger Wassim decided she couldn’t sit on the sidelines any longer.
She told North Dakota lawmakers her son, a valedictorian at a Bismarck high school and now a student at Georgetown University, is afraid of returning to his home state because he fears he may face discrimination. North Dakota needs educated young people to return to boost the state’s economy, she said, and a change in state law would help prompt them to do so.
“The world is changing, and North Dakota must change also,” Riedlinger Wassim told the House Human Services Committee Wednesday. “We must protect all our citizens … Please stand on the right side of history.”
Lawmakers heard more than three hours worth of testimony on both sides of House Bill 1386, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, public services and credit transactions. It would add sexual orientation to a list of protected statuses already in state law, which includes religion, sex, race, age and national origin.
Wednesday’s hearing restarted a debate that has played out in recent sessions. In 2015, the bill passed the Senate but failed in the House, marking the third time in six years lawmakers voted down such legislation. But this is the first time the Legislature is hearing the proposal since the U.S. Supreme Court said the Constitution guaranteed gay couples the right to marry in June 2015.
Proponents, which included church leaders, testified for about two and a half hours Wednesday morning, bringing personal stories of hardship and arguments that the legislation would help attract workers looking for a welcoming community.
Opponents, however, said the bill would infringe on religious liberties and would strip local school districts of their ability to address gender identity issues.
“Civil rights categories should not be used to cover a particular group’s sexual activities or perceptions,” said Christopher Dodson, executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference. He added that the religious exemptions written into the bill were not adequate.
Mark Jorritsma, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota, said the bill could force businesses to provide services and participate in events with which they disagree “based on sincerely held beliefs.”
“All North Dakotans should be free to live and work according to their beliefs,” Jorritsma said. “This bill could greatly harm that freedom.”
Linda Thorson, state director for the Concerned Women for America of North Dakota, said such legislation is part of a larger effort to “alter America’s cultural values.” She said it’s a step toward discriminating against people with “traditional values.”
Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo, the state’s first openly gay lawmaker and the bill’s primary sponsor, shared complaints from 12 people that were made to the Department of Labor and Human Rights since June 2015. That included several who believed they were fired because of their sexual orientation.
Boschee’s bill would allow the Department of Labor and Human Rights to investigate discrimination claims.
Bernie Erickson, who, along with his husband, was among the plaintiffs who challenged North Dakota’s ban on same-sex marriage, pushed back against arguments that some lawmakers don’t discriminate against gay people. He showed the committee poster-sized screenshots of lawmakers’ social media posts, including one in which freshman Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, shared an article that included an image of a swastika over a rainbow flag. She later took down that article and claimed she posted it on accident.
Two staffers in the Senate said Myrdal would not talk to a Forum News Service reporter Wednesday.
Erickson also brought up Republican Rep. Dwight Kiefert’s 2015 Facebook post in which he said the legalization of gay marriage was a great victory for the “METALLY (sic) ILL.” Kiefert is a member of the Human Services Committee and was in the room for Erickson’s testimony.
Asked for comment during a break in the hearing, Kiefert simply said, “Do the research.” He declined to comment further.
“Being gay is not a character flaw nor a debilitating condition, but these lawmakers send this message over and over again that that’s their opinion,” Erickson said.
The committee didn’t take immediate action on the bill.