Coeur d’Alene is the fifth Idaho city to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation following a heated community debate that exposed a deep divide on the issue.
Human rights advocates, religious leaders, business owners, students and educators dug in Tuesday for a long night of testimony before the City Council. Shortly before midnight, councilors voted 5 to 1 to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
The day after, some of those on the front lines spoke of moving on and bridging the rift. Others were disheartened, saying their words of caution fell on ears indifferent to their deeply held beliefs.
“I think that the council members for the most part had already made up their minds before the meeting began,” said a leading critic of the new ordinance, Paul Van Noy, the pastor of Candlelight Christian Fellowship and president of the Coeur d’Alene Ministerial Association.
“The cry for equal rights was heard unequally,” Van Noy said Wednesday.
He believes the ordinance protects the rights of one group at the expense of those who wish to exercise their right of religious freedom, including city residents striving to live by Christian values. “For me it is simply a matter of our call to protect the freedoms of all,” Van Noy said.
Around 400 people showed up for Tuesday’s council meeting, and testimony ran about 2-to-1 against the ordinance. Still, the council did the right thing in passing it, said Tony Stewart, co-founder of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, a human-rights advocacy group.
“In a democracy a majority does not have the right to vote away the minority’s rights,” Stewart said. “Otherwise we could have kept slavery or segregation. The Constitution is there to say to the majority the minority also has rights.”
Councilman Dan Gookin said he was ready for a backlash Wednesday for his support for the ordinance, which is expected to take effect Friday.
“I have gotten a couple of angry emails and one Facebook post that said they need to recall me,” Gookin said. But support for his stand has been overwhelming, he said. “The feedback on email and Facebook and everywhere else is running more like 4-to-1 in favor, like ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’ ”
Some opponents urged the council to put the issue to a public vote. Gookin said he believes the community also would support the ordinance.
“This is an issue that inflames a lot of people, and therefore you bring out some people who are going to be really extreme on one side or the other,” he said. “But I think the average person out there is OK with this. My experience in Idaho shows that we are a very tolerant people.”
That tolerance may be tested at the ballot box come November. The terms are up this year for three councilors – Mike Kennedy, Deanna Goodlander and Woody McEvers – who voted for the discrimination ban. No one has announced re-election plans yet, but this week’s council vote could stir up political repercussions in the fall.
“There is certainly discontent in the community,” Van Noy said. “I do believe that when elections come around, people will have a stronger opinion about who they’re going to elect.”
Pastor Stuart Bryan of Trinity Church, a Reformed and Evangelical congregation in Coeur d’Alene, said he and his parish members had little time to learn about and react to the proposal as it was placed on the council’s agenda in recent weeks.
“To railroad the legislation through in that fashion was, I think, an affront to the citizens of Coeur d’Alene and a travesty,” said Bryan, who spoke against the ordinance Tuesday night.
The council members who voted for it are vulnerable to community backlash, Bryan said. “I would support any and all lawful means to recall them from office and to replace them.”
He also said he’d advise members of his church to violate the new law, not their beliefs.
“I would entirely support any parishioner who opposed that legislation. I think it’s unjust,” Bryan said.
Many have compared this clash with the broad-based effort to drive the Aryan Nations out of Kootenai County. But Bryan sees a flaw in that association.
“I absolutely condemn racism in all its forms, shapes and sizes. But I think we do so on the basis of an appeal to some higher law and higher principle,” he said. “And that’s why we fought against racism in this community. The question with the matter of sexual orientation is what higher law are we appealing to, what broader principles are we appealing to?”
Gookin said he thinks the furor will die down and in time residents will realize the law rarely needs to be enforced.
“People have the anger now. … But it’s really hard to hate for a long period of time,” he said.
Attitudes toward gay rights, including marriage equality, are changing rapidly, Gookin noted.
“I think in several years people are going to look back and they’re going to say, ‘Four hundred people showed up for that? And so many people spoke against it? God, what was going on back then?’ ”
Mayor Sandi Bloem said she’s proud of the council’s “stance of acceptance of all and no discrimination and no hate” – a message of diversity that she feels is important to project to attract good people and businesses to the area.
Bloem sees a need now to mend the wounds of the argument and move forward.
“This community seems to be able to rally around those divisive issues and come together with respect,” the mayor said. “They have in the past, and that’s what I’m hoping they will do here.”
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