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MPR’s Chris Roberts reports that the battle lines that marked the fight over passage of Minnesota’s Human Rights Bill have not gone away. Roberts interviews numerous individuals on the law’s effect.

In 1993, after years of sometimes rancorous debate, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill adding sexual orientation to the state's human rights law. It guaranteed gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people the same protection from discrimination in employment, education, housing, and private and public services, as everyone else.


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CHRIS ROBERTS: Before August 1993, gays and lesbians had no legal recourse if they were discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation. But now, according to Joni Thome of the Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council in Minneapolis, they finally have an effective tool for fighting back. Thome, the organization's legal rights advocate, says with civil rights protection under state law comes a new confidence.

JONI THOME: You can walk into your workplace knowing that, at the very least, you have a law on your side. Whether or not all the people are yet is maybe less important now because at least the law says so. And a group of people who all the rest of us voted for said this is the way it is and the way it's going to be.

CHRIS ROBERTS: This human rights protection made a big difference to Minneapolis attorney Jerry Berg, who claims he was fired last year from the law firm of Mackall Crounse and Moore because he was openly gay. Berg could have filed suit under a long-standing Minneapolis human rights ordinance protecting gays and lesbians. But he chose the state law because he believed it carried more weight.

JERRY BERG: You know, we have a pretty diverse state, different values, different industry, different economic bases throughout the state. And for an amendment to be enacted into the Human Rights Act statewide is a very powerful statement against discriminatory conduct aimed at gays and lesbians.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Since the law was passed three years ago, an average of 40 charges of discrimination a year have been filed at the State Department of Human Rights, on the basis of sexual orientation. That's roughly 5% of the agency's caseload and far behind other categories such as race or sex discrimination. Just 7% of those cases end up with a probable cause finding by the department's investigators, meaning discrimination likely occurred.

That sounds like a small number. But according to state officials, it's on par with the agency's overall probable cause rate for its entire caseload. They add that around another 18% of sexual orientation cases end up being privately settled. The number of sexual orientation discrimination cases per year is somewhat lower than the agency expected, but it doesn't include the dozens of cases handled by private attorneys. The department's acting deputy commissioner, Ken Nikolai, says if the numbers are lower than anticipated, it's a tribute to the state's employers.

KEN NIKOLAI: I think that employers in Minnesota are becoming increasingly sophisticated about diversity. I think that's why we did not see and do not see the great increase in the number of charges filed as we expanded the jurisdiction to include sexual orientation.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Still, Nikolai says discrimination based on sexual orientation occurs most often in Minnesota workplaces, followed by public services, housing, and education. And not all victims are gay. Three years ago, 23-year-old Bill Bobick was a shipping clerk for the Bergen Nut Company in Minneapolis.

One day, Bobick came in to the lunch room and found it littered with religious flyers condemning what they described as sodomites, perverts, and queers, who wear long hair and earrings. Bobick, whose hair still drapes over his shoulders, approached company owner John Bergen and said he would appreciate the material being kept out of the workplace. Bobick says Bergen replied, that's tough and began to discuss the Bible.

BILL BOBICK: Right there, I outright said, well, you know, I'm not a homosexual. You know this, don't you? And he said, well, I'm not saying you are one. I'm just saying you look like one. He said, I'm not saying you are a fag. I'm just saying you look like one. That's the exact quote of what he said.

CHRIS ROBERTS: A few weeks later, Bobick was fired, allegedly for taking excessive breaks, allowing other workers to punch his time card, and using foul language, allegations Bobick calls totally unfounded. The state Human Rights Department agreed with Bobick, finding probable cause that Bobick was discriminated against and fired because of the perception he was gay. Bobick, who's now happily employed elsewhere, says while the case is slowly dragging through the courts, it opened his eyes to discrimination.

BILL BOBICK: I've seen it happen. But I've never really believed that it happens all that much. I mean, you can just step outside and see it now, with everything, with race, creed, sexual orientation, everything. And it's ugly.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Three years ago, the Minnesota Family Council led the fight against including sexual orientation in the state human rights law. Executive Director Tom Pritchard says the council argued that adding a lifestyle category to the law would undermine the credibility of the state's civil rights statutes. Pritchard adds the council also contended the law would be used to launch a gay rights agenda. And he believes that prediction has come true.

TOM PRITCHARD: I think we're seeing the consequences of it, in terms of the legislation has been used as a vehicle for promoting homosexuality in other areas, businesses, through pushing for domestic partner programs. We see it in the schools, with the promotion of gay advocacy groups.

CHRIS ROBERTS: Pritchard says ultimately, the council wants the law repealed or at least curtailed so that schools are exempted from being pressured to create support groups for gay students. Minneapolis DFL Representative Karen Clark, who sponsored the original legislation, says all the Family Council wants to do is send gays and lesbians running back into the closet. Clark says the Family Council's attacks are part of a national agenda that makes money for fundamentalist groups across the country.

KAREN CLARK: If you ever get an appeal in the mail from a right wing organization, they have two issues, abortion and homosexuals. And they make a lot of money off of us. So they're not about to give that up. And yes, every single year, there's been an effort here. You see the referendums in the other states where they have initiative and referendum. They haven't quite given up attacking these basic rights. And I think they'll do it as long as it makes them money and allows them to proceed with their agenda. And it's sad.

CHRIS ROBERTS: The Family Council's Tom Pritchard admits there aren't enough votes to repeal the human rights amendment in the legislature. But he vows to weaken the law if anyone tampers with the Defense of Marriage bill, introduced this session. The politics of the law probably go over the head of Bill Bobick, the man who was fired for being perceived as gay. Bobick says he found out through experience, the law is a necessary protection, given the world we live in.

BILL BOBICK: I know what it feels like. I went through it all in high school. I went through the whole thing, the whole crowd thing, where everybody chooses their own crowd and makes fun of the other crowds. And it's just like that in the real world. It's exactly like that. Nobody knows how to grow up anymore. Nobody knows how to understand each other. And this law might slap a couple of people in the face and make them realize that. Because you can't treat another human being like that, no matter what.

CHRIS ROBERTS: For Minnesota Public radio, this is Chris Roberts.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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