BOISE – Hundreds of demonstrators 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 demonstrators 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 eighth year we’ve been working on this, the eighth 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 ninth year and there will be a 10th year. We’ll keep coming back. We’re not going away until we right this wrong.”
Twenty-one states, including Washington and Oregon, have laws banning discrimination against gays. In Washington, the process was a long one: A bill was introduced every year for 29 years before it finally passed in 2006.
In Boise on Monday, some of the activists also held signs opposing House Bill 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 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.
“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,” Tolman said.
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 demonstration 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 and high school students. Last Thursday, more than 60 activists marched in silence around the Statehouse and then filed through the rotunda, wearing matching “Add the 4 Words, Idaho” T-shirts.
While the demonstrators gathered inside the state Capitol, Gov. Butch Otter answered questions about government from young charter school students at a school choice rally on the capitol steps. When asked 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.”