“We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. It is time now to write the next chapter – and to write it in the books of the law.” – Lyndon B. Johnson
Here in North Dakota, the next chapter in human rights may be about to be written. SB 2279 narrowly passed through the Senate in mid-February and found its way to the House Human Services Committee on Monday, March 23. The bill provides certain protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation – and has raised a considerable amount of attention – both for and against.
The state has long had statutory policies of nondiscrimination that (from a long list of others) include race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disabilities, veteran status, and marital status as they relate to employment, credit, housing, and public accommodations. Most of these have been on the books long enough that we now have entire generations who have never experienced discriminations once a reality prior to enactment of these federal and state laws. Most of us can’t imagine a world where these protections don’t exist.
SB 2279 would add sexual orientation to the list as a means to include the LGBT populations of North Dakota. Currently, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender can be fired from their work, and can be denied housing, credit or public accommodations based on their sexual orientation. Likewise, individuals who identify as heterosexual can also find themselves in need of these same protections – and while this scenario is less likely, it certainly could be a reality.
The hearing was long and emotional as we listened to a large number of people who drove across the state to share their experiences of discrimination. Some were of the LGBT community, others were straight – they represented a broad spectrum of people that included business, education, clergy, healthcare – and more. While fewer in numbers, opposition came from the same general makeup of people, ultimately providing a well-rounded hearing process.
As in most cases of discrimination, the arguments against the inclusion of sexual orientation center on the perceived infringement of personal and religious liberties, the burdens of public accommodations, the acknowledgement of another class of citizen, and fear of unknown consequences.
What the bill does is provide for a pathway of action in the event of discrimination – similar to any other alleged case. The Commissioner for the Department of Labor was able to provide testimony on what that process looks like, in addition to estimations of how this might impact their agency. He explained that in all alleged cases, the onus is on the individual to establish proof of discrimination. This burden of evidence is substantial as a means to ensure only substantiated claims move forward. It’s expected that if passed, SB 2279 might see an increase of as many as 10 or 12 cases in a year, which would not overburden their office.
In the past few weeks I’ve received a large volume of email asking for careful consideration prior to voting on this bill – and, of course, the request to vote one way or another based on the given perspective. Since we will be voting on this in the coming days, it seems appropriate to share how I intend to vote – and why.
Looking at the facts:
•As it stands, today in North Dakota silence in the laws promotes an environment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” which, by default, allows for discriminatory practices with relation to sexual orientation. People can be fired from jobs, evicted from homes and denied essential accommodations based their perceived sexual orientation.
•To date, we have anecdotal evidence of instances of discrimination within the state, but without laws allowing for a recourse through the Department of Labor, we are without empirical evidence – truly a Catch 22 situation. We hesitate to enact laws without definitive data – we can’t collect data without state sanctioned directives.
•Looking back through a snapshot of history on discrimination laws, common denominators of opposition typically focus on personal and religious convictions, burdens of accommodations, resistance to the idea of protected classes, and objections based on preconceived notions.
North Dakota has implemented well-defined statutes prohibiting discrimination for identified vulnerable populations, while maintaining a long history of right-to-work and business-friendly environments. As a state, we are committed to the basic principles of human rights – SB 2279 would enhance this policy through the inclusion of sexual orientation.
For these reasons, I will both advocate for, and vote in favor of SB 2279. Movement forward is never easy. Historically, the inclusion and acceptance of diversity has never come easily. But, it has come. Anti-discrimination laws do not ask us to approve of any particular population, rather they require respect for the basic human rights of these populations. SB 2279 fits well with this principle.
I hope this helps to illustrate my legislative stance with regards to SB 2279. As always, don’t hesitate to contact me for further discussion on this – or any other topics.
District 20 Representative
680 166th Avenue NE
Cummings, N.D. 58223-9540