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North Dakota Senate votes down bill to amend state law to reflect legal gay marriage

BISMARCK — The North Dakota Senate voted down legislation to update state law with gender-neutral language Tuesday, Jan. 10, about 18 months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had a constitutional right to marry.

Opponents of the Senate Bill 2043 said the change was unnecessary and dismissed arguments from supporters that failing to amend state law could leave the state open to litigation. The bill failed 15-31, with one senator absent.

The bill would have amended a variety of references to "husband and wife" in state law to "two individuals married to each other" and other similar changes. It affected parts of state law dealing with fishing licenses and adoption, along with other provisions.

Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, pointed to a section of the North Dakota Constitution that defines marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, as approved by 73 percent of the state's voters in 2004. She also said committee testimony indicated that the change was not needed.

"A 'yes' vote on Senate Bill 2043 will actually accomplish functionally nothing, though it will serve to diminish with official intent the honor and sacredness of what the human institution of marriage is described as in (the) North Dakota Constitution as it stands today," she said.

But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the U.S. Constitution guarantees gay couples the right to marry, striking down state bans on same-sex marriages.

Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said the interim legislative committee that examined the proposed changes wasn't seeking to debate the definition of marriage. He said the bill would help prevent potential lawsuits that could cost taxpayer money.

"North Dakota simply cannot overrule (the) U.S. Supreme Court's decision," he said. "I do not believe it is responsible for us to risk potentially millions of dollars in taxpayer money just because we refuse to update the current century code to reflect current federal law."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said it's a "pretty drastic" assertion that the state would face millions of dollars in legal costs if the bill wasn't passed. Still, he voted in favor of the legislation along with seven other Republicans.

Sen. David Hogue, R-Minot, who chaired the interim Judiciary Committee, acknowledged same-sex marriage is the law of the land, but he argued the bill "doesn't do anything."

"It's a bill that inspires and arouses a lot of passion in this chamber and elsewhere, but the bill's not necessary," he said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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