North Dakota's Republican governor sent a memo to 17 government departments on Monday saying discrimination against anyone is unacceptable, just two hours before every Democrat in the Legislature delivered a letter calling on him to go further and issue an executive order prohibiting bias against gays and lesbians.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple's chief of staff sent the letter to all agency directors appointed by the governor.
"This administration expects all cabinet agencies to hire employees and to maintain agency staff based on ability and performance," Chief of Staff Ron Rauschenberger wrote. "Ours remains a policy of non-discrimination, including no discrimination based on sexual orientation."
All 38 Democrats from the House and Senate delivered a letter to Dalrymple later in the day asking him to issue an executive order to require state agencies to ban discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation. Republicans hold two-thirds majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. It was not immediately clear if Dalrymple would sign such a formal executive order.
The debate over gay rights ramped-up in North Dakota in the wake of a backlash against religious objections laws in Indiana and Arkansas that critics say could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians. Facing criticism especially from major corporations such as Apple and Wal-Mart, Republicans in those states scrambled last week to clarify that the laws should not be used to discriminate.
Amid that national uproar, North Dakota's House voted Friday to kill a proposed law that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace. Unlike the other states, the North Dakota proposal did not deal with religion.
After the Legislature killed the measure, Dalrymple issued a statement chiding lawmakers for missing an opportunity protect gays and lesbians in the state from discrimination, the third time in six years the measure had failed to pass.
"Discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation is not acceptable," said Dalrymple's statement.
It caused some friction within the Republican-controlled Legislature. House Majority Leader Al Carlson said Dalrymple was mum before the vote and that party leaders were "very disappointed that he came out with an opinion on a bill that was never going to reach his desk."
Fargo Democratic Rep. Josh Boschee, the state's first and only openly gay lawmaker, told The Associated Press that Dalrymple's statement last week "gave us some ammo" to push further. North Dakota civil rights law does not include sexual orientation as a protection, and several officials said they had not been aware of any formal policy on the issue before Dalrymple issued the memo Monday.
"We've never seen anything in writing and I don't think anyone I know of was aware of it," Boschee said.
A spokesman for the union that represents state employees said he also was unaware of any such policy.
"If it exists somewhere, we're unaware of it," said Stuart Savelkoul, assistant executive director of North Dakota United, a group represents thousands of employees ranging from kindergarten teachers to snowplow drivers.
Ken Purdy, director of Human Resources Management Services, which handles personnel issues for state government, said this was the first he had heard of the governor's policy directive.