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Dave Olson, Published January 22 2013

Bill aims to ban housing, job discrimination based on sexual orientation in North Dakota

FARGO – Fargo attorney Tom Fiebiger was a state senator in 2009 when he introduced a bill that would have added sexual orientation to the list of discriminatory practices banned in North Dakota.

The bill passed the Senate but failed in the House.

Fiebiger is no longer a lawmaker, but he is still an attorney working in civil rights and backs a new bill aimed at protecting people who are gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual.

People like his son, Erik.

“He grew up here. He went to school here and, quite frankly, my son lives in New York,” Fiebiger said.

“It’s difficult to grow up in North Dakota as a gay child and a gay young man, and I think there are a lot of people out there that, unfortunately, have run into a lot of those same issues,” he said.

Fiebiger spoke at a news conference Tuesday discussing the merits of Senate Bill 2252.

The bill would amend the state’s Fair Housing Act and the North Dakota Human Rights Act, making it unlawful to discriminate against someone in housing and employment based on sexual orientation.

Fiebiger said the bill has bipartisan support and he feels the time is right for change to happen.

“I’m convinced it (the Legislature) is a different place than it was four years ago,” he said.

“We want people to come and live in North Dakota and yet we still make it a place where not everybody is as invited as everyone else,” Fiebiger said. “When you talk about equal rights, that’s what we’re working towards.”

The bill is sponsored by Reps. Kylie Oversen, D-Grand Forks, Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, and Nancy Johnson, R-Dickinson; and Sens. John Warner, D-Ryder and Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks.

Fiebiger was joined at Tuesday’s news conference by Dave Lanpher, a real estate broker and chairman of the Fargo Human Relations Committee.

“We want to make sure that no person is fearful about retaining or finding a job, or finding housing or retaining their home based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Lanpher said.

“We want all of our citizens to have the same protections and rights,” he said. “Some of my customers who are gay choose to live in Minnesota because they have this protection there and feel more at home in that environment.”

Peter Schmidt, senior pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in West Fargo, also spoke in favor of the bill.

“There are many good reasons this should be passed, business reasons, but I’m here to speak on behalf of it’s the right thing to do to complete the journey toward equality and civil rights,” Schmidt said.

Fiebiger pointed to President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Monday, when for the first time a president spoke about gay rights during an inaugural address.

Obama declared that America’s “journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

Fiebiger said the event also celebrated Martin Luther King Jr., who preached it is always the right time to do the right thing.

“I find it a sad state of affairs in 2013 when someone can be fired from their job or evicted from their home because of who they love,” Fiebiger said

Holly Johnson, a Lutheran pastor and director of The Project F-M, a ministry aimed at young adults, agreed.

“The Project F-M is about making space for people to love God and love their neighbor and this seems to be an issue about loving your neighbor,” she said.

Supporters of the bill also held news conferences in Bismarck and Grand Forks to tout the proposal.

Grand Forks resident Zack Petrick said he lost his job and apartment when he was fired as a building manager because he is gay. He decided to come out publicly as gay after the failure of the 2009 bill.

He did not know if the new bill would pass this year, but said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“Any time you allow time to pass, hearts and minds change,” Petrick said.

Grand Forks Herald reporter Christopher Bjorke contributed to this report.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555