Coeur d’Alene, a community that stood up to the racist Aryan Nations and has established a tradition of celebrating human rights, is the latest Idaho city to extend legal protection from discrimination to gay people.
Following more than three hours of heartfelt testimony, the City Council voted 5-1 late Tuesday night to add sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination law. Councilman Steve Adams opposed the change, which will take effect within the week.
The vote shortly before midnight capped a long night of clashing testimony touching on morality, religious freedom, civil rights and equal protection under the law. Hundreds of people packed the meeting room at the city library, and dozens testified on the proposed change, most of them urging the council to vote no.
Clergy spoke of moral theology, religious sensibilities and the obligation to reject homosexuality as a lifestyle.
Gay residents spoke of fear of losing their jobs with no legal recourse, and a desire to be respected for who they are.
Business owners expressed worries about being exposed to costly litigation and forced to compromise their faith.
Councilman Dan Gookin said he’d rather the city not have to take up the issue at all, saying he’d prefer Congress or the Idaho Legislature address it. But because federal and state lawmakers have not acted, the city is faced with it now, he said.
Gookin said discrimination in any form is wrong, and this change reflects existing protections based on race, creed, color and national origin.
“I don’t think we can actually legislate from the Bible up here,” he said.
Adams disagreed, saying the Bible is clear. “Homosexuality is a sin – you can’t twist that around,” he said.
Adams also warned against the effect the law would have on local businesses. “Inevitably this ordinance will be used as a sword more than a shield,” he said.
Councilwoman Deanna Goodlander said she does see parallels to North Idaho’s past struggles with white supremacists operating in the area.
“Human rights are human rights, period,” Goodlander said. “Coeur d’Alene has stood against hate – strong stances against hate.”
“We do have to send the message that intolerance does not belong in Coeur d’Alene,” she added.
The debate presented the community an opportunity to send a strong message that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated here, said Norm Gissel, a Coeur d’Alene attorney and human rights activist who helped bankrupt the Aryan Nations in Kootenai County.
“In the matter of civil rights, we are the shining city on the hill,” Gissel said, recalling the area’s resistance to the white supremacist movement a generation ago. “We are tested once again as a community.”
Speaking against the proposal, Pastor Paul Van Noy of Candlelight Christian Fellowship in Coeur d’Alene attempted to separate the issue from discrimination based on race.
“This is not a racial issue,” Van Noy said. “A person does not have a choice how they will be born … but a person does have a choice about their behavior.”
He likened homosexuality to drug addiction and spoke of the need to protect gay people from the harm of their sexual habits. The new law would move the city “from tolerance to endorsement.”
But, Van Noy added, “As pastors in the community we want you to know we are not homophobic.”
City Councilman Mike Kennedy sponsored the ordinance, which is modeled after one adopted in Boise last year. It seeks to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
The Idaho 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.
In response, some cities have taken up the issue, beginning with Sandpoint in December 2011. Boise, Moscow and Ketchum followed with similar laws.
Many who addressed the Coeur d’Alene council Tuesday described homosexuality as unnatural and immoral, and warned council members not to embrace “the homosexual agenda.”
“There’s good discrimination, folks, there’s healthy discrimination,” said Eric Seeley, a former pastor who spoke against the ordinance. He then called his young children to the podium and told them the city would no longer protect them from sexual perverts. “It’s just like San Francisco now.”
John Rennie said as a business owner he worries that the law would make it difficult for him to fire a gay employee for any reason.
“You’re not giving equal rights here, you’re giving special rights,” Rennie said.
If it were put up for a community vote, residents would defeat the ordinance, he added.
Larry Angel of Coeur d’Alene said the change would destroy the citizens, business community and “images of this wonderful city.”
Coeur d’Alene attorney Susan Moss said she has endured slurs and discrimination as a lesbian. She pushed back against assertions that being gay is optional for her.
“It wasn’t a choice for me,” Moss said. “I would never have chosen this. I don’t like sticking out.”
By approving the ordinance, “you’re just saying we all deserve a fair shot at work and at shelter,” she said.
Evelyn Adams, a former Kootenai County commissioner, also recalled the days Coeur d’Alene confronted the fear and hate of the Aryan Nations.
“I think this city should welcome and should be willing to accommodate people from all walks of life,” Adams said.
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.