Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President Kate McAlister wasn’t expecting it when a woman in her 60s walked up to her at a community event, hugged her and started crying. “She said, ‘I want you to know that because of what you did, for the first time in all our lives I can take my partner to a Christmas party without fear of being fired,’ ” McAlister recalled.
This was after McAlister helped push through a citywide ordinance in Sandpoint barring discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Idaho, it’s still legal to fire someone because they’re gay, or to evict them from their home or deny them service in a restaurant. But it’s no longer legal within the city limits of Sandpoint.
“When it passed, there was a round of applause from the audience,” said Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie, who added that she was surprised to learn that Sandpoint was the first Idaho city to enact such a law. Pocatello is now drafting a similar ordinance that its City Council could vote on this fall, and Boise is looking into an ordinance.
“If tiny little Sandpoint can do this, anybody can do it,” McAlister said. “I’m not sure what’s stopping us.”
Mormon church backed ordinances in Utah
Idaho appears to be in the early stages of a process that’s already happened in neighboring states. In Oregon, a dozen cities and counties had passed local nondiscrimination ordinances regarding sexual orientation before a statewide nondiscrimination law was enacted in 2007. In Washington, local laws also were passed in a dozen cities and counties before a statewide law passed in 2006.
Spokane’s local ordinance passed in 1999; Seattle’s passed in the 1970s.
In Utah, 15 cities and counties have now enacted nondiscrimination ordinances for sexual orientation, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which did so with the strong support of the Mormon church, the state’s dominant religious organization.
But Utah hasn’t yet passed a state law, despite repeated attempts in the Legislature. And in Washington, the process was a long one: A bill was introduced every year for 29 years before it finally passed.
Doug Honig of the Washington ACLU said local ordinances can help pave the way for statewide nondiscrimination laws. “Certainly it builds momentum,” Honig said. “It gives parts of the state experience in having laws like that, and showing the rest of the state that these laws can work and be effective. It also builds a comfort level among legislators when you’ve had laws like this at local jurisdictions.”
Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, which pushed for that state’s law, said: “Most Americans don’t realize that in many places it is still legal to be fired, denied housing or thrown out of a business for being gay. While a statewide, or even a nationwide, policy would be great, passing local ordinances provides the opportunity to build grass-roots support and educate the public. It lays important groundwork with both the public and policymakers across a state.”
Idaho lawmakers have rejected legislation each year for the past six years to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability. In many of those years, including this year, lawmakers refused to even allow the bill to be introduced.
Advocates were stunned at the party-line vote against introducing the bill this year, after a statewide outpouring of support for it that included well-attended rallies, including one that drew more than a thousand people to the state Capitol.
Five Idaho cities, including Boise, Moscow and Caldwell, already have personnel policies for their city employees prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But those policies don’t affect discrimination by other employers in the cities, or in housing or public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels.
No complaints so far in Sandpoint
In Sandpoint, the ordinance passed in December and took effect in January. So far, there have been no complaints under it.
Under the ordinance, complaints go to a new three-member city Human Relations Commission, which will first seek to resolve them through mediation. “The ordinance is designed to push people toward mediation, which gets them to talk,” said City Attorney Scot Campbell, who drafted it. “To me, that’s the best way to resolve this.”
If that’s not successful, the commission can turn the complaint over to Campbell for possible prosecution; violations are misdemeanors. The ordinance specifically prohibits private lawsuits over the complaints, meaning business owners couldn’t be sued for damages.
“We just want to fix what was going on, make changes,” Campbell said.
He noted that the ordinance doesn’t just apply to gays and lesbians; everyone has a sexual orientation, and it forbids discrimination based on that.
“It just helps make people aware,” he said. “That’s the way I explain it.”
Sandpoint’s ordinance followed a similar move on another issue: texting while driving. The state had long debated laws to ban the practice but hadn’t successfully passed one. So Sandpoint passed its own ban.
“We were one of the first cities to eliminate and outlaw texting while driving,” Ogilvie said. “The Legislature had been dragging their feet. It was ridiculous.”
She also launched a multijurisdictional resolution with other cities against texting while driving and sent that to the Legislature. “Now it’s against the law, which is great. And we were a front-runner in that regard,” she said.
Ogilvie called her city’s actions “an example of speaking loudly and being a squeaky wheel.”
‘Do what we can, where we are’
In Pocatello, the city’s Human Relations Advisory Committee has been collecting stories from local residents who have experienced discrimination over their sexual orientation or gender identity. “People are very reluctant to have their name attached to it at all, because they could lose their job or housing,” said Susan Matsuura, chair of the committee. “So we’ve been collecting those anonymously.”
A dozen stories have come in so far. Among them was the experience of a same-sex couple who had been happily living in a rented apartment when some repairs were needed, and the landlord learned that the two men shared a bedroom. They were evicted.
Another resident told of silently and uncomfortably enduring offensive anti-gay jokes at work, for fear of the consequences of revealing that he was gay. “He needed the job very, very badly,” Matsuura said. “They didn’t understand why he didn’t laugh.”
She said several personal stories, including stories of evictions and firings, were shared at a January rally in Pocatello in favor of the “Add the Words” campaign for a state law. When lawmakers didn’t act, her committee brought the proposal for a local ordinance to the City Council, and the mayor asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance.
“I just feel if the state is unwilling to act, the Legislature won’t get off their tail and do it, the best I can hope for is to try and do something locally,” Matsuura said.
Boise Mayor David Bieter said after the state failed to act, “the question was: Can we? Should we?” He said several City Council members raised the issue, and he asked the city attorney to begin researching it. “It’s uncharted waters for us,” he said. “Our job is to look out for the well-being of Boise, and that’s what we do.”
Former Sandpoint City Councilman John Reuter, who first proposed Sandpoint’s ordinance, said, “Here was the thinking in my mind: When it comes to civil rights, all of us need to do what we can where we are.”
Said Reuter, 29, a former Idaho Republican Party central committee member and former Idaho Senate GOP staffer, “I think if we’re ever going to make progress in the state, this is going to be how.”
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