License to Discriminate: Human Rights Campaign Condemns North Dakota Senate for Advancing Dangerous Religious Refusal Bill, Urges Governor Burgum to Veto Legislation Warping Definition of Religious Freedom

by Cullen Peele

"Religious Freedom Should Not Be Used as a Tool to Deny Someone Employment, Housing, or Other Basic Human Services Because of Who They Are or Who They Love"

Bismarck, ND – Today, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) civil rights organization, rebuked members of the North Dakota Senate for passing HB 1136, a bill that, if signed into law, will allow anyone to claim that their religious beliefs is an excuse to discriminate and violate the rights of others. It will now head to Governor Doug Burgum’s desk for a signature or veto.

HB 1136 could allow anyone to be exempt from following a law or a governmental policy if they believe that law or policy burdens their religious beliefs. That means that any individual religious belief has the potential to determine which state and local laws a person or corporation must follow.

In response, Sarah Warbelow, HRC’s Legal Director, released the following statement:

“Since our nation’s founding, religious freedom has strengthened our union and has acted as a fundamental pillar of democracy enshrined in the Constitution. However, politicians playing to a small yet extreme base are distorting its intended purpose and weaponizing it to limit the rights of others, including the LGBTQ+ community and other vulnerable people. Religious freedom should not be used as a tool to deny someone employment, housing, or other basic human services because of who they are or who they love. Lawmakers in North Dakota are sending a clear and dangerous message that LGBTQ+ residents, members of the community who pay taxes, vote, and contribute to the state’s economy, are not owed the same protections as everyone else. The Human Rights Campaign urges Governor Burgum to veto this bill that legalizes discrimination and delegitimizes any of his initiatives meant to, as stated publicly, ‘empower people, improve lives and inspire success.’”

In 2018, Governor Burgum unveiled a five-point program promising a “positive and innovative state government culture.” Governor Burgum has also called for a $25 million investment in a strategic marketing plan that includes the "Find the Good Life" campaign, a talent-recruiting initiative designed to grow North Dakota's economy while promoting the state as a place of opportunity, freedom, and community. Regardless of how many millions of taxpayer dollars are spent carrying this message, North Dakota lawmakers have made clear through the multitude of anti-LGBTQ+ bills they’ve introduced and passed that some people are simply not welcome in North Dakota.

The unintended consequences of federal and state religious refusal bills have undermined our core civil rights protections and jeopardized the health and safety of vulnerable people. Business leaders and many faith leaders have opposed efforts to enact these types of bills across the country knowing the harm they can cause. In 2015, Indiana’s disastrous attempt to pass a similar bill resulted in the loss of 12 conventions and had a negative economic impact of up to $60 million. In 2016, Republican Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed a RFRA stating “Georgia is a welcoming state. It is full of loving, kind and generous people. … I intend to do my part to keep it that way.”

Religious refusal bills also lead to costly litigation for state and local governments. State and local governments have been tied up in court for years defending constitutional laws and policies to which some individuals and businesses object.

So far in 2023, HRC is tracking more than 470 anti-LGBTQ+ bills that have been introduced in statehouses across the country. Approximately 190 of those bills would specifically restrict the rights of transgender people, the highest number of bills targeting transgender people in a single year to date.

This year, HRC is tracking:

  • More than 110 bills that would prevent trans youth from being able to access age-appropriate, medically-necessary, best-practice health care; seven have already become law, in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Dakota, Utah, Iowa and Georgia,

  • More bathroom ban bills filed than in any previous year,

  • More than 85 curriculum censorship bills and 35 anti-drag performance bills.

The Human Rights Campaign is America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. HRC envisions a world where LGBTQ+ people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.

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