- Associated Press - Monday, March 23, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota lawmakers have defeated legislation twice in the past six years that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Bernie Erickson and his husband, David Hamilton, told lawmakers Monday that they’re hoping similar legislation will finally pass this session.

“We are not looking for any kind of special treatment,” Erickson told the House Human Services Committee. “We are asking to be treated with dignity and respect just like everybody else.”

The Fargo couple, who were married in Canada, were among dozens of proponents and opponents packing The Capitol’s largest room to testify on the measure that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace.

Opponents of the measure said it was unnecessary, and argued it could force religious organizations to go against their own convictions.

North Dakota law now forbids discrimination by race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin and disability. It also bans discrimination based on whether a person is on public assistance, married, or unmarried.

Bipartisan legislation introduced this session would add sexual orientation to the list of classes of individuals who are specifically protected against discrimination. Similar legislation failed during the 2009 and 2013 sessions.

North Dakota’s Senate approved the measure last month and sent it to the House. The Human Services Committee will decide later whether to endorse the proposal. The panel’s recommendation will be followed by a House vote.

“If this is voted down yet again,” Erickson told lawmakers, “I think that’s going to change my point of view from our Legislature tolerating discrimination to our elected officials actually encouraging discrimination.”

Alison Grotberg traveled from the tiny town of Wimbledon in southeastern North Dakota to tell lawmakers the measure is “the wrong tool” for North Dakota.

“This bill demands that the state grown in sympathy and advocacy for those who have gender and identity and sexual orientation concerns, while at the same time stripping tens of thousands of people their constitutional rights to follow their conscience under God without legal repercussion,” Grotberg said.

The measure also would hurt businesses and spur lawsuits, said Tom Freier, executive director of the North Dakota Family Alliance.

“Government should not through unfair mandates diminish the rights of all,” he said.

Fargo Democratic Rep. Josh Boschee, North Dakota’s first and only openly gay legislator, said more than 20 states have anti-discrimination protections in law for individuals based on sexual orientation.

By passing similar legislation, “we are adding into statute that discrimination is not a North Dakota value,” Boschee said.

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people fear they could lose their jobs or residences under current state law, he said.

Boschee said passing the legislation would help business in the state.

“Passing (the bill) will open up North Dakota to a number of employers and employees who may have never considered the opportunities our great state provides,” Boschee said.

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