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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho senators reject protections for gays

Proposal to extend anti-bias coverage won’t get hearing

A group expresses disbelief with a silent protest outside the Senate State Affairs Committee meeting on Friday. (Associated Press)

BOISE – Efforts to prohibit employment and housing discrimination against gay people in Idaho were rejected Friday by a state Senate committee as a shocked crowd of more than 250 supporters of the human rights bill looked on.

The committee, which includes all four members of the Senate GOP’s top leadership, refused to introduce the bill, thus barring a public hearing on it.

Judy Halverson, a United Methodist Women member from Boise who was among the crowd attending the hearing, called the decision “just very disappointing, not even to be allowed to be heard.”

“I’m just astounded,” Halverson said. “This is 2012. It’s time, it is time.”

The move came just two days after lawmakers in neighboring Washington state approved a gay marriage bill that is expected to be signed into law Monday by Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, illustrating the broad ideological divide between the two Northwest states.

In Boise, state Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, told the Senate State Affairs Committee that his “Add The Words” bill would amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“The act allows the commission to address issues in employment, housing, education and public accommodations. This legislation does not create a new protected class, since all people have a sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said.

Malepeai said, “It ensures that all Idahoans are free to hold jobs and rent apartments regardless of whether they are straight or gay. So the question before us today with this legislation is whether or not it is the policy of the state of Idaho to allow discrimination against our gay family members, co-workers and friends.”

He added, “In my opinion it would be profoundly disrespectful not to afford those tens of thousands of families affected by this legislation at least, at least the printing of the bill. Pardon me,” he said, pausing with emotion. “We owe it to those who know and love their gay family members and friends … to allow them to speak about the harm they see being done each day in Idaho without the voice of the state finally saying that discrimination is wrong.”

But only the committee’s two Democrats, Sens. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and Malepeai, voted in favor of Stennett’s motion to print and introduce the bill; all other committee members voted no, and the measure was rejected.

There was a gasp from the crowd of more than 250. “That’s Idaho,” one person commented, while another called out, “What’s it going to take?”

There was no discussion before the vote, other than a comment from Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, telling Malepeai that he has “a great deal of respect” for him.

After the hearing, Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, told the Associated Press, “I think what you saw was the conflict of two entirely different worldviews.”

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, later told reporters, “The issue becomes, where does it stop? Where do those special categories end?”

More than 150 people signed in for the meeting, all in favor of the bill. It’s been proposed each year for the last six years, but never has been given a hearing.

Two weeks ago, more than a thousand people turned out for a rally at the state Capitol in support of the “Add The Words” legislation, as similar rallies were held in cities across the state; hundreds of colorful sticky notes urging lawmakers to “add the words” were posted on glass doors inside the Capitol.

Backers of the legislation have said the notes are the only way they can get their point across to lawmakers, since lawmakers won’t schedule a public hearing on the bill.

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, an openly gay state lawmaker, said, “I was completely astounded by the party-line vote, because some of those people who voted ‘no’ have told me repeatedly that they support this issue.” She said, “In the end, this is politics.”

After the hearing, the crowd filed out, and in the hallway outside the Capitol Auditorium, a group began singing “We Shall Overcome.” A capitol security guard quietly removed sticky notes from the dais in the hearing room, placed there shortly after the committee adjourned.