February 20, 2009 in Idaho

Idaho senators reject anti-discrimination protection for gays

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, asks a Senate committee to introduce her bill to expand the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation. Despite her heartfelt plea, the committee voted 4-2 against a motion to introduce the bill.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Idaho state senators have rejected a move to extend the Idaho Human Rights Act’s anti-discrimination provisions to cover sexual orientation.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, gave a heartfelt pitch to her fellow senators to introduce the measure, which she said has an array of legislative co-sponsors. “At least 20 members of our Legislature have members of their families that are gay or lesbian and directly affected by these issues,” she told the Senate State Affairs Committee.

Sen. Chuck Coiner, R-Twin Falls, a co-sponsor, recalled the recent Special Olympics in Boise, which he said celebrated a population, those with intellectual disabilities, that, in his childhood, was “warehoused, hidden out of sight of the public for many years. … Their families were not very proud of them. Today we celebrate them, we call them special.” He mentioned the civil rights movement, which brought the country from treating African-Americans as second-class citizens to the days when a black woman can serve as the nation’s secretary of state and the nation’s new president is of mixed race. “We don’t see color much any more as we used to,” Coiner said. “We’ve come a long way. The movement on that part of our society that are gay and lesbian, transgender - their movement is a few years behind, but moving. … We’ve got a lot of education to go.”

LeFavour said when she’s talked with other lawmakers about the issue over the past 10 years, many mistakenly believed that it’s already illegal to fire someone because they’re gay or lesbian. Last year’s BSU Public Policy Survey showed that 64 percent of Idahoans believe it should be illegal to fire someone because they are or are perceived to be gay. But since the state’s human rights law, which bans discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations on the basis of race, religion and disability, doesn’t include sexual orientation, “By virtue of its omission, many employers and many individuals perceive that it’s OK to discriminate,” LeFavour told the Senate committee. “By our silence, we condone it.”

Throughout Idaho, people live in fear that their employers will find out their sexual orientation and fire them, said LeFavour, Idaho’s only openly gay legislator.

She pleaded with the senators to introduce her bill, “just for the acknowledgement that this is an issue that deserves more discussion.” The measure included an exemption for religious organizations.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, moved to introduce the bill, and Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, seconded the motion, but they were the only two to favor the move in a voice vote, with Sens. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, and Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, voting no. That killed the bill.

Afterward, LeFavour received hugs from a large group of supporters who had filled the committee hearing room, and then crowded the Capitol Annex’s small second-floor foyer.

“I’m so disappointed in my colleagues,” LeFavour said. “I know better of them, and I know in their hearts they know better. That’s the hardest part.”

The Idaho Human Rights Commission, which in past years has endorsed and pushed for such legislation without success, this year narrowly voted against it. The commission enforces the state’s human rights act, hearing and adjudicating discrimination claims.

LeFavour said she didn’t think that, in itself, hurt her bill’s chances. “You know, we don’t typically care what agencies think about a bill,” she said. “I think what needs to happen now is that people who care, across the state, need to speak up. And there are so many people who care, and we need them.”

Christian activist Bryan Fischer, who heads the Idaho Values Alliance, distributed a letter to the committee before the hearing opposing “granting special workplace rights based on non-normative sexual orientations.”

Because the bill was just up for introduction, only the bill’s sponsors spoke at the hearing; no public testimony was taken.

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