BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota's Republican governor on Thursday said state lawmakers missed an opportunity to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination when they failed for the third time in six years to pass a measure that would prohibit bias in housing and employment based on sexual orientation.
"Discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation is not acceptable," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a statement issued after the North Dakota Legislature killed the proposal.
Dalrymple made his view known on the same day that GOP governors in Arkansas and Indiana took actions designed to quell the uproar over so-called "religious freedom" laws that critics have said are disguised discrimination against gays.
The proposed North Dakota legislation is different in that it would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace, and does not deal with religion.
The state Senate approved the measure in February but House members voted to defeat it, with opponents saying during testimony such protections are unnecessary, and argued it could force businesses and religious organizations to go against their own convictions.
"It's frustrating," Fargo Democratic Rep. Josh Boschee, the state's first and only openly gay legislator, told reporters.
Several Democrats spoke in favor of the legislation Thursday, joined by two Republicans — Reps. Thomas Beadle and Kathy Hawken.
Beadle and Boschee said the defeat of the proposal could subject North Dakota to a backlash much like Indiana and Arkansas faced from the public and businesses worried that state would appear to be unwelcoming.
"The mere perception of LGBT discrimination will have negative consequences," Beadle said.
Supporters said many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people fear they could lose their jobs or residences under current state law.
Similar legislation failed during the 2009 and 2013. Boschee said the measure will reappear in future legislative sessions until it passes.
"It will be back," he said.
North Dakota law now forbids discrimination by race, color, sex, religion, age, national origin and disability. It also bans discrimination based on whether a person is on public assistance, married, or unmarried.
The bipartisan legislation introduced this session would add sexual orientation to the list of classes of individuals who are specifically protected against discrimination. Sexual orientation is defined in the measure as "actual or perceived heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality or gender identity."
GOP Rep. Robin Weisz, who heads the House Human Services Committee that, said no one on the panel "believes in discrimination for anybody." He said the committee did not receive any testimony that showed any outright discrimination going on.
Democratic Assistant Minority Leader Corey Mock called the legislation, "the discrimination movement of our generation." Mock requested that the vote on the bill be divided into two sections: The first would ban discrimination related to public accommodations and services and the advertising of them; the second related to discrimination based on housing, employment, financial assistance and personal business transactions.
The first part was defeated 61-30 and the second failed 56-3 after more than 90 minutes of often emotional debate on the House floor. More than 100 people packed the chamber to listen to the debate.
North Dakota Republicans have two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate.
"The question becomes, what side of history do you want to fall on?" Beadle asked fellow lawmakers. "Do you want to be the last person standing that says we should allow open and blatant discrimination against people because they are gay, and that's just icky? Or do you want to recognize the inherent rights of the individual?"