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Landlord objects to Fargo-passed resolution supporting LGBT residents

By Erik Burgess / The Forum

FARGO – City commissioners here unanimously showed their support Monday for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.

But at the same time, they realized that without support from state lawmakers, Fargo cannot easily enact laws that prevent housing discrimination against LGBT residents.

At the urging of Commissioner Melissa Sobolik, the City Commission passed by a vote of 5-0 a resolution that states the city of Fargo “encourages tolerance and acceptance of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

The resolution also states that the city recognizes there are residents whose gender identity “may not fit their assigned sex at birth.”

Residents who showed support for the resolution applauded commissioners but urged them to do more and be the catalyst for change throughout North Dakota, where the state constitution bans same-sex marriage and where state lawmakers failed earlier this year to pass anti-discrimination legislation that would have protected LGBT residents.

Those who argued against the city resolution Monday said it would create unnecessary protected classes and that it harms the freedom of rental property owners.

Sobolik said hundreds of cities across the country protect LGBT residents from housing discrimination, but those cities are also in states that support gay, lesbian and transgender residents as protected classes.

Without North Dakota’s support, it is difficult for the city to ban such discrimination, Sobolik said. The resolution accepted by the commission Monday is a statement of principle, not an enforceable law.

“I wish there was more I could do at this point,” Sobolik said. “But please see this as a first step, and it’s a journey I’m committed to.”

Grand Forks leaders recently banned housing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Grand Forks is believed to be the first city in the state to do so.

Sobolik and the Fargo City Attorney’s Office said Grand Forks could do that because of the city’s building registry. Rental property owners there must register with the city and follow certain city policies and regulations.

Sobolik on Monday said there are a “multitude of reasons” for Fargo to explore a registry, but she said it could be studied at a later date.

All five city commissioners told The Forum earlier this month that they would be willing to further study a building registry, but they did not vote on the matter Monday.

More work to be done?

Fargo attorney Tom Fiebiger challenged commissioners Monday to keep working with the City Attorney’s Office to “put some teeth” into city law to prevent housing discrimination against LGBT residents.

Mayor Dennis Walaker has said he doesn’t think discrimination against LGBT is a big issue in Fargo because he doesn’t receive a lot of complaints.

Fiebiger acknowledged that he, too, hasn’t received many complaints.

“But that’s not because it’s not happening,” he said. “That’s because they know what the law is, and they know they have no recourse, and that to me is outrageous in 2013.”

Tom Freier, president of the North Dakota Family Alliance, said he believes Fargo is already inclusive and that a resolution would “divide more than unite” the city’s residents.

“There’s a great sense of respect and tolerance and, really, acceptance in this entire community, and I do not believe that would be enhanced by passing a resolution,” Freier said.

Brad Friesen, who owns rental property in West Fargo, said he respects people of all sexual orientations, but he is not OK with the commission granting “special status to splintered groups,” which might infringe upon the rights of rental property owners.

“There are many of us here who are in support of existing housing laws and think they are just fine,” Friesen said. “We support heterosexual standards and traditional family structures that have been the basis of strong society since the beginning of time.”

Friesen also compared homosexuality with pedophilia, and asked the commission where they “draw the line.”

For Barry Nelson, chairman of the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, the commission’s resolution doesn’t go far enough. Nelson said “it’s frustrating” that North Dakota has not changed its laws with respect to LGBT residents despite several other states taking that step.

“I’m disappointed that this is the baby step we need to be taking when people in our community live in fear that they may be displaced or lose their job because of their sexual orientation,” Nelson said.

State lawmakers earlier this year failed to pass legislation that would have protected LGBT residents statewide by banning discrimination in housing, government, public services and the workplace.

Nelson said he hopes the Fargo resolution will “send a message” to the rest of the state.

“You will be adding to the momentum begun by the city of Grand Forks,” Nelson said. “It is right for all of our citizens.”

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