BOISE - Hundreds of protesters filled all four floors of Idaho’s state Capitol on Monday to urge lawmakers to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Many held small, hand-lettered signs saying, “Add the Words.” The protesters want the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the Idaho Human Rights Act, which now forbids discrimination based on race, religion, disability and other factors, but not on those two.
“This is the 8th year we’ve been working on this, the 8th consecutive session that they told us they won’t even give us a public hearing,” said Mistie Tolman, co-chair and spokeswoman for Add the Words, the group pushing for the change. “If we need to, there will be a 9th year and there will be a 10th year. We’ll keep coming back. We’re not going away until we right this wrong.”
Some of the protesters also held signs opposing HB 427, the religious freedom expansion bill from Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, that’s pending in the Idaho House. It would protect those who deny service to those to whom they object on religious grounds. No action was taken on that bill on Monday
“The bill is not ready to advance at this point,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley.
After more than 500 people attended a public hearing last week to oppose that measure, it was sent to the House’s amending order, where any member may offer amendments. A stack of amendments a quarter-inch thick was proposed, but Bedke called for a “thoughtful pause,” and the bill was put on hold.
Tolman said, “The fact that … it could be called up at any time makes us uneasy, and we wanted to send a big message to House members to let them know that a large number of us don’t believe that you should be able to use religion as a reason to discriminate.”
People testifying against HB 427 said it could undermine local anti-discrimination ordinances passed in seven Idaho cities in the past two years, including Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene and Boise.
Monday’s giant protest was the third “Add the Words” protest at Idaho’s Capitol since legislative leaders again refused to give the anti-discrimination bill a hearing this year. In the first protest, on Feb. 3, 44 people were arrested after blocking all entrances to the Idaho Senate chamber, including clergy members, senior citizens, high school students and more. Last Thursday, more than 60 silent protesters marched around the Statehouse and then filed through the rotunda, wearing matching “Add the 4 Words, Idaho” T-shirts.
Tolman said polling shows Idahoans strongly oppose allowing people to be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes for being gay. A statewide poll by Moore Information commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union in December of 2011 found that 81 percent of Idahoans believe it should be illegal to fire someone because they’re gay. A 2008 Boise State University public policy survey found 63 percent thought that should be illegal.
Twenty-one states have laws banning discrimination against gays.
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, more than 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.
While the protesters gathered inside the state Capitol, Gov. Butch Otter was answering questions about government from young charter school students at a school choice rally on the capitol steps. When a reporter asked him about the “Add the Words” protest, Otter said, “That’s what this constitutional republic is all about. That’s what the first 10 amendments are all about.”
He added, “I don’t perceive Idaho as anti-gay. I perceive it as pro-marriage in the traditional sense.”
As lawmakers exited their chambers after their morning session, the protesters placed their hands over their mouths, to symbolize that they’re not being heard.