January 26, 2011 in Idaho

Idaho could expand anti-discrimination law

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

Idaho Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, shown here in his office in the state Capitol on Wednesday, says he’s known discrimination first-hand due to his Samoan ethnicity. He’s sponsoring legislation to add sexual orientation to Idaho’s anti-discrimination law. “I certainly understand the political climate,” he said. “It is still the right thing to do.”
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Idaho’s state Human Rights Commission has endorsed legislation adding sexual orientation to the state’s anti-discrimination law. Just two years ago, the commission opposed such legislation and lawmakers refused to introduce it.

This year, the legislation already has been introduced, and Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, says he’s hopeful lawmakers will consider it, especially now that the Human Rights Commission has voted 7-2 in favor of it.

“I have seen and experienced a lot of discrimination based on race and ethnicity,” said Malepeai, who is of Samoan ancestry. “I know what it’s like to be on that end.”

At least 20 states, including Washington, ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But Idaho lawmakers have rejected the idea repeatedly over the past decade, most recently in 2009. That year, the commission voted 5-4 against backing it.

Estella Zamora, president of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, said the commission already has heard from an Idaho woman who claims she was fired from her job because she is gay. “I just don’t believe that’s right,” Zamora said. “That is absolutely wrong.”

Commissioners also took note of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy by Congress, and cited the move in casting their votes at a meeting last weekend.

“With the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ our military service men and women can go and fight in a war, they can openly serve our country,” Zamora said. But when those military members return home to Idaho, she said, “They can be denied employment or be fired because of their sexual orientation. … If we don’t pass this law, that is exactly what will be happening.”

The Human Rights Commission investigates and mediates discrimination complaints in employment and public accommodations based on race, creed, color, sex or national origin. Malepeai said his bill, SB 1033, is very simple. “It only adds four words to the human rights statute,” he said. Those are “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

“It’s the right thing to do to provide rights and freedoms for everyone … regardless of who you are,” Malepeai said. “Everything should be based on performance, not on who we are, what we are.”

Pamela Parks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, said, “It was just an exceptionally thoughtful, deliberate, honest and really respectful conversation about whether the Human Rights Act should be amended.”

Ruthie Johnson, the North Idaho member of the commission, was among the two dissenters, along with Sheila Olson of Idaho Falls.

Johnson said Wednesday that she views sexual orientation as a choice. “When people are born black or they’re born Hispanic, they have no choice in what they are,” she said. “I think your sexual preference is a choice.”

Johnson said she doesn’t believe anyone should be fired from their job just because they’re gay, but she said, “All of those laws have unintended consequences, and sometimes it can be an excuse.”

She said she worked with a gay co-worker for years without knowing it, and, “When I found out and someone told me, I didn’t care. I still loved working with him. He didn’t try to hide it and he didn’t flaunt it, and that’s the way it should be.”

Parks said some of the commissioners talked about their own experiences working for large companies that already have established non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. “Most Fortune 500 companies already recognize the importance of protecting all of their employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation,” she said.

Malepeai said he’s been quietly talking to other lawmakers about his bill in hopes it can get a hearing this year. He introduced the measure as a personal bill, so it didn’t need a committee’s approval to be introduced.

“Hopefully by going this route, at least the issue can be out front,” he said.

In 2006, Idaho voters endorsed a far-reaching constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, with 63.3 percent of the state’s voters in favor. Idaho’s current Legislature is more than 80 percent Republican, and many members have staked out conservative positions on both fiscal and social issues.

“I certainly understand the political climate,” Malepeai said. “It is still the right thing to do.”

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