Coeur d’Alene soon may join a growing number of Idaho cities to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation – a reaction to the Legislature’s steadfast refusal to add such protections to state law.
City Councilman Mike Kennedy is drafting an ordinance modeled after one adopted in Boise last year. It would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
“I think it’s needed, I think it’s overdue, and it’s simple equal rights,” Kennedy said.
“We shouldn’t be excluding any group or party from full participation and full protection under the law,” he said.
The Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations asked the Coeur d’Alene Council to add the language to the city code, Kennedy said.
The Legislature has spurned attempts each of the past seven 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. Most years lawmakers refused to even allow the bill to be introduced.
“The Legislature didn’t act again this year on it, and so it makes sense to do it now and help push the momentum toward a statewide law,” Kennedy said.
Sandpoint led the charge in December 2011 when City Council members there adopted the first such ordinance in the state. Boise, Moscow and Ketchum followed with their own laws.
The Pocatello City Council in southeast Idaho rejected an anti-discrimination ordinance last week but plans to consider a modified proposal that more citizens could support.
Coeur d’Alene and other Idaho cities also strengthened rules governing child care centers after the Legislature repeatedly rejected bills to do so. Under pressure, state lawmakers eventually adopted some tighter standards for child care providers.
“It’s not unusual for cities to lead the Legislature in some way on a topic like this,” Kennedy said. “Hopefully the Legislature will take a step at some point.”
A similar process led to statewide protections elsewhere. In Washington, local laws were passed in a dozen cities and counties before a statewide law was adopted in 2006. Spokane’s ordinance passed in 1999.
Jon Downing, a part-time chemistry instructor at North Idaho College, said he feels frustrated that Idaho lags on addressing this civil rights issue.
“I am angered that our demands have gone on deaf ears,” said Downing, who is gay. “I am disappointed that state representatives are more concerned about their reputation than about the concern of the citizens they represent.”
As co-adviser for the NIC Gay-Straight Alliance, Downing said he hears stories of discrimination in the Coeur d’Alene area.
“I have had students fired from their jobs for coming out in their workplace,” he said. “I had a student just last month be kicked out of her apartment for having her girlfriend overnight. I have seen the bruises from bullies left on students. I have counseled student victims of hate, some of whom were considering suicide to escape the ugliness they see all around them.”
And with no laws in place to protect the victims, they are reluctant to speak up, he said. “To openly come out puts you in danger of being fired, evicted or bullied by friends and family,” Downing said.
In a Feb. 4 letter to the mayor and City Council, the Task Force on Human Relations wrote, “The City of Coeur d’Alene has the opportunity to move forward in advancing the principles we have all promoted for decades. We urge you to stand on the broad shoulders of those who have gone before you in confirming once again the dignity and rights of all our residents and share in this noble legacy.”
Kennedy said he hopes to bring the proposal before the city’s General Services Committee May 13, then to the full Council May 21.
Religious organizations would be exempt from the ordinance, as would anyone who owns a rental property in which they also live, such as a landlord renting a room in their house, Kennedy said.
The ordinance would provide for mediation of a complaint prior to the city determining a violation has occurred and issuing a fine.
“In reality it would be little more than a slap on the hand for people that violate the ordinance, but the message the ordinance holds is powerful,” Downing said.