Politics & Policy

North Dakota’s Republican Governor Acts to Avoid a Fight Over Gay Discrimination

In North Dakota, Republican Governor Jack Dalrymple is the one criticizing local lawmakers for their failure to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation—not gay activists or Democratic politicians. Dalrymple’s criticism may have been aimed at staving off a fight about gay discrimination and religious freedom, but it has also brought more attention to the issue in his state, and exposed a conflict simmering in his party. On Monday, the governor issued a memo to 17 state departments explaining that all forms of discrimination are unacceptable.

Dalrymple’s memo followed a decision made last week by the GOP-led North Dakota House of Representatives to kill a proposed bill that would have changed current law to expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in government, public services, the workplace, and housing. The governor responded to a reporter’s question about the proposal’s failure by chastising Republican state representatives for their lack of support, which exposed some friction in the state party.

State representative Josh Boschee, an openly gay Democratic lawmaker, told the Associated Press that Dalrymple’s critical statement “gave us some ammo,” to push for more action from the governor about gay rights. After Dalrymple issued the memo opposing discrimination, all of the Democrats in North Dakota’s legislature sent the governor a letter asking for an executive order to explicitly require state agencies to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The governor’s office claims an executive order to protect state agencies already exists. Jeff Zent, Dalrymple’s spokesman, tells National Review that the governor reaffirmed and ratified an executive order last year requiring all state cabinet agencies to provide fair, equitable, and uniform treatment for state employees.

#related#The governor may have drafted the memo to appease local Democrats and avoid the overwhelming criticism that Indiana Governor Mike Pence faced after signing Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Gay activists criticized Pence’s decision to sign the legislation because they believed the law would let businesses discriminate against homosexuals.

Dalrymple’s office says that the governor was not worried about facing a similar backlash. “His [Dalrymple’s] response has been solely based on what’s happening here in North Dakota,” Zent says. “Why did the governor respond? Because the governor was asked for a response.”

Thus far, Dalrymple’s proactive approach seems to have nipped an Indiana-style controversy in the bud. As Republicans in other states debate over how to respond to similar conflicts, North Dakota’s approach appears worthy of consideration.