BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Former North Dakota Gov. Allen Olson said Tuesday he "probably" considered lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people when he crafted a nondiscrimination policy for state employees 34 years ago.
Olson, a Republican who was governor from 1981 to 1984, told The Associated Press that the intent of his 1981 executive order was to treat "human beings as human beings."
"That's the way I felt," said the 76-year-old Olson, who now lives in Minneapolis. "I had a father who was very much a person who accepted all human beings regardless of their failings and that was very influential on me."
Olson's executive order that mandated all state employees be provided "fair, equitable, and uniform treatment" was reaffirmed and ratified last year by current GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple.
All 38 Democrats from the House and Senate delivered a letter to Dalrymple on Monday asking him to issue an executive order to require state agencies to ban discrimination in hiring and employment based on sexual orientation. Dalrymple's staff responded by saying one is not needed because the governor adopted Olson's executive order.
Ron Rauschenber, Dalrymple's chief of staff, also sent a letter Monday to all agency directors appointed by the governor stating: "Ours remains a policy of non-discrimination, including no discrimination based on sexual orientation."
The debate over gay rights in North Dakota has intensified after the state House last week killed a bill that would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, government, public services and the workplace. Afterward, 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," he said.
Senate Democratic Minority Leader Mac Schneider had said he'd be "astonished" if Olson was "thinking about sexual orientation" when the order was signed in 1981. On Tuesday, the Grand Forks attorney said that "it's great" that the former governor likely considered sexual orientation in his executive order but the policy now needs to be explicit.
"Maybe back in 1981, that was as far as Gov. Olson could go," Schneider said. "In 2015, why not come right out and say it? What's the harm in clarifying that?"
Olson grew up in the tiny northeastern North Dakota town of Sarles and is a 1963 graduate of the University of North Dakota law school. He also was a banker and served as an Army lawyer in the 1960s. It was during his military service, Olson said, that he learned firsthand about discrimination toward gays.
"I had a colleague who lost his commission because he was homosexual," Olson said. "I recall that bothered me but I had no choice to accept it because I couldn't change the Army's position in those days. But society is changing. Look at it today."