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Brandi Jewett, Forum News Service, Published August 27 2013

Grand Forks committee delays talks on anti-discrimination law

GRAND FORKS - Members of a Grand Forks City Council committee have chosen to delay discussion on a proposed anti-discrimination law until later this month to give city staff more time to research its potential effects and enforcement.

“It’s easy to enact an ordinance. It’s harder to enforce it,” council member Doug Christensen said.

If passed, the law would prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and protected classes defined by the state’s human rights law.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the state law, prompting city residents and officials to call for a local law that would offer similar protection.

Originally, city attorney Howard Swanson said he drafted the proposed city law with only sexual orientation and gender identity listed in it but then decided the law could be broader and added other protected classes.

This change and the question of who will enforce the law — the city or another agency — caused the council’s finance committee to delay its next discussion of the law until Sept. 23.

About 30 people attended the meeting to listen to discussion on the law.

Ten residents spoke to the committee, and several of them emphasized the historical nature of the council’s decision should it choose to approve the law. If passed, the city would be the first in North Dakota to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Rev. Keith Mills with United Church of Christ in Grand Forks said the issue comes down to basic civil rights, comparing it to women’s and African-Americans’ fights for voting rights.

“Those who took the position against the full participation of women in our society 100 years ago were wrong. Those who took the position against the full participation of African- Americans 50 years ago were wrong,” he said. “Today, those who argue against the full participation of our gay brothers and sisters … are wrong.”

Victor Luiken, a retired minister, contended passing the law would force those of faith to approve or enable a behavior they believe is contrary to God’s will.

“I want to know if this is a real or perceived fear, or if it’s an endorsement of homosexuality by our city leaders,” he said.

The proposed law does come with some exemptions, which were requested both by council members and citizens at past city meetings.

Swanson said those exemptions include rentals in single-family homes and some multi-unit rentals occupied by the owner, religious institutions and federal and state government housing.

The suggestions for exemptions came from meetings discussing a similar measure passed by the city earlier this year.

In June, the council approved an ordinance banning the city from discriminating against its employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The council does not have the power to extend that law to other businesses in the city, according to Swanson.

That city law came after the state Legislature defeated SB 2252 this year, which would have added gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes to the state’s human rights law.