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ND takes another look at sexual discrimination bill

Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, speaks in favor of a bill on Wednesday which would protect LGBT individuals from being fired or evicted solely based on their gender orientation. Boschee testified in favor of a similar bill in 2009.

BISMARCK -- Zachariah Roe was coaching debate at Fargo North High School in 2010 when he decided to change his sexual identity to match how he truly felt inside.

Roe changed his name to Riah Roe and began to alter his physical appearances to look more like a woman. In the process, Roe met with his employers to inform them about the change.

"It took eight days for them to replace me," Riah Roe said Wednesday.

Current laws do not allow Roe to seek any legal action against the school for discrimination, but a bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning would allow any lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Dakotan to seek recourse against an employer or landlord if they are fired from their job or evicted from their residence based on their sexual orientation. The bill does exempt religious organizations from the proposed law.

Senate Bill 2252 is sponsored by Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder, and five other House and Senate lawmakers, including Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the state's first openly gay legislator who testified in favor of similar legislation in 2009.

"It is a statement from our elected leaders that we value all North Dakotans and their contributions to our communities, regardless of who they love or consider their family," he said. "It is rare that today any of us do not have a family member, friend, co-worker, neighbor or someone we worship with that is gay or lesbian."

The 14-page bill would change state law substantially, but a majority of the legislation only adds "sexual orientation" to state code relative to insurance, housing, judicial matters and human rights statutes -- the bill defines the term as, "actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality, or gender identity."

But this isn't the first time the bill was in front of the Legislature.

Former State Sen. Tom Fiebiger of Fargo proposed very similar legislation during the 2009 session, which passed through the Senate but failed in a House committee.

Fiebiger was on hand Wednesday to testify in favor of the bill, speaking as the father of a gay son.

"I want the same thing for my son as everyone else wants for their kids," he said.

The divide in political and religious views was just as evident during the hearing as the divide in the room as most proponents sat on one side and opponents were on the other.

Opponents to the bill say it would create a special class of citizens for protection purposes, violate their First Amendment right to practice their own religious beliefs and believe current state laws already protects LGBT individuals so the proposed law is not needed.

Kellie Fiedorek, attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, said expanding the state's laws would create multiple legal issues and undermine First Amendment rights.

"Religious freedom is not confined to only the four walls of a church," she said.

She highlighted a case in Colorado where a baker declined to bake a cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs. The couple filed a complaint, which Fiedorek called "religious intolerance."

She also said a counselor in Georgia was fired after she respectfully referred a gay woman to another counselor. Fidorick said the woman was overly pleased with the counseling service, but still filed a complaint.

Christopher Dodson, a lobbyist with the North Dakota Catholic Conference, said the churches "deplore the actions against" LGBT individuals but, "civil rights categories should not be used to protect sexual activities," he said.

John Boustead, a pastor at Solomon's Rest Church in Bismarck, said passing the law to promote the moral issue of protecting LGBT individuals will only create more immorality.

"North Dakota is a strong, honorable, moral and righteous place to live," he said, "It's a lot easier to lose this quality then keep it."

Susanna Magstadt, of Bismarck, said after the hearing that religion is a personal choice and is just as subjective as anything else and shouldn't matter in this case.

Magstadt told the committee she was fired from a housekeeping position six years ago while attending school in Bismarck. She received positive reviews until she told her boss she was gay.

Although the company has a nondiscrimination clause in its contracts, Magstadt was still fired for "doing a poor job," her former boss told her.

Committee member Sen. John Grabinger, D-Jamestown, said both arguments were valid, highlighting the proponents need for more protection, and opposition citing their religious concern and transgender individuals use of locker rooms and restrooms.

"As somebody who hasn't experienced the discrimination, it was very interesting to see and hear the stories," he said. "It definitely left an impression."

A representative from student governments at the University of North Dakota Student Senate, North Dakota State University and the North Dakota Student Association each provided the committee with copies of resolutions in support of the bill.

The Grand Forks City Council, represented by Pete Haga, the city's community and government relations officer, testified in favor of the bill after the city council passed a resolution Monday supporting the measure.