The Truth About SB 2279
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2015

When it comes to providing accurate information, the state’s news and social media sometimes fail miserably.

Last session, the newspapers inaccurately portrayed the legislature as preoccupied with abortion bills when the legislature actually spent a relatively short amount of time on the abortion bills. The editorials, buttressed by letters and social media posts, then created the impression that all the pro-life bills from the last two sessions were struck down by the courts. In fact, a court has invalidated only one statute.

Perhaps the most egregious example concerns the legislature’s defeat of SB 2279, the “sexual orientation non-discrimination bill.” According to the narrative created by the news and social media something like this happened:

Following the example of most states, legislators introduced a bill that merely banned discrimination against someone because he or she is a homosexual. The bill completely addressed religious concerns, was clear in its definitions, and was widely supported by the business community. Evidence was presented that North Dakotans were denied employment, housing, and services because of their sexual orientation. Religious groups bullied legislators into opposing the bill, citing religious doctrines about the immorality of homosexual relationships. The bill was the most important issue this session and the state House’s defeat of the bill sends a message that the state is not welcoming.

The problem with this portrayal is that not a single sentence of it is accurate. Not one. Here’s the truth:

  • A majority of the states do not have laws like SB 2279 and most that do have better religious protections.

  • The bill did not prevent discrimination because of someone’s mere orientation. Instead, its definitions extended to providing legal protection to a specific set of acts that expressed sexual orientation.

  • The bill did not include valid religious exemptions and it arguably scaled-back existing religious protections already in the law.

  • The bill was not widely supported by the business community. Only two business-related organizations supported the bill and the state retail association did not take a position. Legislators reported that many business owners, especially in the days before its defeat, contacted them with concerns about the bill.

  • Despite hours of testimony no one testified or brought forth evidence of discrimination actually based on sexual orientation. Most of the wrongs that were alleged were already penalized under the law.

  • The North Dakota Catholic Conference and the North Dakota Family Alliance not only did not “bully” legislators, but actually made little effort to defeat the bill. The problems with the bill and the bill’s supporters did that work for them. We mostly just provided answers to questions when asked.

  • The North Dakota Catholic Conference’s opposition never appealed to religious doctrine or the morality of homosexual acts. The opposition was based solely on the problems with giving certain acts and chosen behaviors special protection under the law and the lack of protections for religion and conscience.

  • Although the bill was the most important issue for some, it certainly was not for most North Dakotans. Except for those that represented a few select districts, many legislators have expressed that they did not receive many emails on the bill and that those that were received were split mostly equally between supporters and opponents. The issue certainly was important to the Forum newspaper, which took the unprecedented action of using its front page to “expose” legislators who voted against the bill. The Forum apparently took as its model the newspaper tycoon from Citizen Kane who declared “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.”

  • The defeat of the bill changed nothing in the law. North Dakota is just as welcoming as it was before the bill’s defeat. No evidence was presented that discrimination because of sexual orientation is occurring in housing, employment, or public accommodations and North Dakota has been a magnet for families, businesses, and young entrepreneurs. If a negative message is being sent, it is being sent by the bill’s supporters, not the legislature.

The news media is not solely responsible for all this misinformation and its reporters are less culpable than the editors. Editors can exempt themselves the standards of journalism. Twitter, Facebook, and blogs compound the problem. We have much “information” floating around, but the truth can be harder to find.

If there is a lesson learned from all this it is not just that we need to work harder to find the truth. We also need to pray that our Father shows us the truth.