Judge lauds Idaho gay-rights protesters for courage
BOISE – The last of more than 100 Idahoans arrested this year in gay-rights protests at the state Capitol were sentenced in a four-hour-plus hearing Monday, and the judge had this message for them: “I respect your courage in doing what you did.”
The protesters took part in “Add the 4 Words” demonstrations during this year’s session of the Idaho Legislature, standing silently, hands over their mouths, and refusing to leave until lawmakers agreed to hold a hearing on legislation to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act – or until they were arrested. No hearing was held.
The protesters want the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” added to the types of discrimination banned by the act. Lawmakers have refused to hold a hearing on the proposed legislation for the past nine years.
“What I appreciate about the approach you all took is the American tradition of civil disobedience is we all disobey and then we take our consequences,” Magistrate Judge Michael Oths told the packed courtroom. “It does take some guts to stand up in civil disobedience and take the penalty, and I respect that.”
In all, 109 people were arrested on 192 separate misdemeanor charges in the protests during this year’s legislative session. The final two dozen were sentenced Monday; all received community service hours and court costs, and some also received small fines, depending on how many times they were arrested.
Those who were arrested only once had their charges dismissed. Those with multiple arrests received 10 hours of community service per arrest, and for those with four or more arrests, fines of $10 per arrest. They also are liable for court costs that start at $152.50.
Major Steve Richardson of the Idaho State Police, who oversees executive protection and capitol security for the ISP, told the court the repeated mass arrests cost the ISP close to $24,000, including $6,000 to add an additional trooper for the final weeks of the session in response to the protests. The protesters, he said, were “courteous and cooperative.”
Jeffrey Brownson, one of 20 Boise attorneys who volunteered to represent the protesters for free, responded, “This isn’t a fiscal issue, your honor, this is a civil rights issue. We don’t look back at the 1960s, at the great protests, and think, ‘Gee, that cost a lot of money.’ We’re grateful.”
Tears flowed in the courtroom when the mothers of two gay Idaho teens who committed suicide after being bullied and harassed told their stories. The protesters, gay, transgender and straight, young and old, working-class and professional, told of suffering discrimination and cruelty, seeing their loved ones suffer, and finding no recourse under Idaho law.
“We’re nine years too late for some children – it should have been done nine years ago,” said Gretchen Bates, 67. “I’m so afraid that … more children will die. … Adding four words, how simple is that? We talk about the cost of things, but how do you put a price on your child’s life? You can’t.”
The state called legislative observer Fred Riggers, a 72-year-old who is legally blind, who testified that protesters blocked him and others in the Senate foyer during one protest, and kept him from accessing scheduled committee hearings in another. Prosecutors also read a statement from Idaho Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Sarah Jane McDonald that said the Legislature was disrupted by the protests and people were unable to do their jobs or access proceedings as a result.
Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, the state’s first openly gay lawmaker and a key organizer of the protests, told the court she had tried for years to get a hearing for the bill before planning this year’s protests. “At one point we even had Republican co-sponsors for the bill, and then politics came in,” she said. “Year after year after year, they would just tell us no. They won’t even hear the story. At that point, what do you do? You have people coming to you and telling you that their kids are taking their lives. I tried everything.”
She said, “What we did this year is all we could think of to do. It was all that was left.”
Madelynn Lee Taylor, a 74-year-old Navy veteran and one of the arrested protesters, noted she’s been denied permission to be buried with her wife in the state’s Veterans Cemetery. “All of you in grade school used to take the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag,” she told the court. “How does it end? Liberty and justice for all. And we don’t have justice for our gay and lesbian people. The kids are dying out there. We need to give them hope.”