BISMARCK — A North Dakota House committee reopened a longstanding debate over banning discrimination based on sexual orientation Monday, Feb. 11, with some LGBT advocates raising objections over the exclusion of transgender people from the proposed protections.
House Bill 1441, championed by Fargo Republican Rep. Mary Johnson, largely mirrors failed legislation from 2017. But it doesn’t include gender identity in the definition of sexual orientation, attracting opposition from the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, which has supported past efforts.
Elizabeth Loos, the coalition's legislative coordinator, said the bill would "codify into law that it is acceptable to discriminate against transgender people." She said she's heard from people who have lost jobs or been evicted from apartments in North Dakota.
"Transgender people are among the most vulnerable and at-risk, and excluding them sends an awful message to transgender youth, adults and their loved ones," Loos told the House Human Services Committee.
Johnson said her proposal wasn’t meant as a slight to transgender people but was intended to be a compromise to a Republican-led Legislature that has repeatedly struck down similar legislation in recent sessions. The North Dakota Senate defeated an LGBT anti-discrimination bill late last month, marking the fifth such outcome in the past 10 years.
Johnson’s bill would add protections for sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas. State law already bans discrimination based on race, sex, religion and other factors.
Johnson said she had “firsthand knowledge” of a man being fired because he was gay, despite his talents.
“And that is what this bill seeks to battle,” she said. At one point, she held up a Bible in arguing that her religion “demands that this bill be passed.”
Johnson’s bill was supported by Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, with his chief operating officer pitching it as a way to address the state’s workforce shortages.
"We are competing both nationally and globally for talent, and laws that exclude or limit the rights of our citizens, or the omission of laws that protect those rights, create a barrier for recruiting and retaining talent," Jodi Uecker said in prepared testimony.
The proposal faced familiar opposition from the North Dakota Catholic Conference, with its executive director Christopher Dodson arguing it includes insufficient religious exemptions and would “create special protections for a certain class of activities and self-perceptions.” The head of the Family Policy Alliance of North Dakota said it opens up businesses to lawsuits.
The committee’s chairman, Hurdsfield Republican Rep. Robin Weisz, expected his panel to vote on the bill Tuesday, sending it to the House floor.