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The Municipal Civil Rights Movement

News | October 17th, 2013

Local leaders move to provide protections in the absence of State action

By Sean Coffman

As part of the 63rd Legislative Assembly of North Dakota, Senate Bill 2252 was submitted to augment civil liberty protections. In February of 2013, the bill failed to pass the Senate by a 21-26 vote. Had it passed as originally drafted, SB2252 would have amended the state policy against discrimination to include sexual orientation.

“SB 2252 would have provided lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Dakotans and their families security in their jobs and homes,” said bill sponsor and state Rep. Joshua Boschee, D-Fargo. “Currently, many North Dakotans are fearful of being ‘outed’ as it could mean the loss of their job or apartment simply because of who they are.”

Zachary Packineau of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota agrees. Without these legal protections, “LGBT people can be and are fired because of who they are, and not because of how well they do their job.” The ACLU reports that 75% of Americans agree that individuals all have a right to earn a living and support their families, regardless of our sexual orientation.  Similarly, 73% of Americans agree that employment discrimination against transgender people should be illegal.

In the absence of State protections, municipalities across North Dakota have found themselves intentionally protecting the civil liberties of the LGBT community through local ordinances prohibiting discrimination in employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“No person should fear that because of who they are that these rights can be denied,” said Barry Nelson, Chair of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition. “Since the State legislature is unwilling to provide for these protections, the cities have stepped in and take a leadership role.”

In June, Grand Forks became the first city in North Dakota to protect current and new city employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In October the city council approved a second ordinance that expanded those protections to the housing market, making Grand Forks the first city in North Dakota to ban rental housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Similar ordinances are currently in motion in Bismarck, Mandan and Grafton. In Fargo, an effort is underway to expand existing protections. 

Fargo explores expanding protections

In 2000, the city of Fargo enacted an ordinance that protected current and new city workers and applicants from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Missing from the Fargo version that exists in the recently passed Grand Forks ordinance are protections that include gender identity.

City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik would like to see those protections expanded to include gender identity, and is currently working within various city departments to identify the process to do so. More, Sobolik would like to see those protections expanded to protect all workers in Fargo and not only city employees.

“Discrimination happens,” said Sobolik. “It's happening in Fargo. It's happening to people who ask about partner benefits at work, and they're fired two days later. Or people getting kicked out of their housing because there are two people of the same sex living together and the land lord is suspicious that they have a relationship. When we're taking away jobs and we're putting people into the street, that is a problem.”

In July the Fargo City Commission voted unanimously to review the expansion of employment protection throughout the city and to identify the extent of authority the commission can exert in the absence of state protections. 

“It didn't pass at the State level, so it's hard for us to implement at the city level without state support,” said Sobolik. “Not impossible, but really, really hard and it would probably get challenged legally.”

“Up to now, a significant majority of state legislators either through ignorance or bigoted thinking have been able to thwart attempts to change our state laws around human rights,” said Nelson. “City actions will raise the visibility and importance of these issues so that they will be forced to answer for their ignorance or bigotry or lose their job.”

The municipal efforts “send a loud and clear message that discrimination is wrong,” Packineau said.

Efforts to protect housing discrimination for LGBT have not yet formally started in Fargo.

Supporting the movement

There are two ways to best support these municipal movements. The first is with votes at local and state levels.

‘Voting is the only way that many elected officials are held accountable. Elections have consequences,” Boschee said.

Participation in elections is fundamentally important to ensuring societal and cultural programs and protections important to communities are enacted.  And once a vote has been given, constant communication with elected representatives is crucial.

“You’d be surprised how often we don’t hear from people on an issue they’re probably very passionate about,” said Sobolik. “Honestly, if we get two to three emails on an issue, that's enough to make us stand up and say, ‘OK, there are people behind this.’ A couple of emails make a big difference.”

For more information about Fargo’s efforts to expand protections to the LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance or to provide your support for the effort, contact City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik at (701) 241-1310 or msobolik@cityoffargo.com . 

To voice your support of the expanded protections of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment or housing within the City of Fargo, or to give a personal account of discrimination that you have experienced, email your City Commissioners via the addresses below:

Mayor Dennis Walaker dwalaker@cityoffargo.com  City Commissioner / Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney tmahoney@cityoffargo.com City Commissioner Melissa Sobolik msobolik@cityoffargo.com City Commissioner Mike Williams mjwilliams@cityoffargo.com  City Commissioner Brad Wimmer bwimmer@cityoffargo.com

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