BOISE – After years of denying a hearing for proposals to ban discrimination against gays, Idaho legislators decided Wednesday to let a committee debate the issue.
On a 6-1 vote, the Idaho House’s leadership committee agreed Wednesday to introduce the “Add the Words” bill, a measure to amend the Idaho Human Rights Act to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to ban discrimination on those bases.
The vote clears the way for a full hearing on the measure, which is expected to be scheduled in the House State Affairs Committee the week of Jan. 26. Proponents have sought a hearing on the anti-discrimination bill for the past nine legislative sessions without success.
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who presented the bill to the committee and voted for it, said, “It’s merely a question of fairness, freedom and equal treatment for all Idahoans.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, cast the only dissenting vote.
“I campaigned on traditional values and supporting traditional marriage. I promised the voters,” he said afterward. “I think I got 74 percent of the vote in my legislative district based on this being one of my campaign platforms.”
House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, who voted in favor, said he determined that he shouldn’t deny the right to have a hearing.
“I struggled with this for days,” he said. “I’ve talked to my pastor, I’ve talked to other pastors.”
Also voting in favor of introducing the bill were House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star; House Ways & Means Committee Chairwoman Christy Perry, R-Nampa; House Minority Caucus Chair Donna Pence, D-Gooding; and Assistant Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. There was no discussion; more than a dozen supporters of the bill filled the meeting room’s few open seats while others listened quietly from the hallway outside the open door.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said, “It’s time.”
He said he consulted with Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and agreed that the bill should have a full hearing.
“The legislative process needs to be open to all,” Bedke said. “I am not predicting any outcome or guaranteeing any outcome, but the process is going to be open to all.”
During last year’s Idaho legislative session, more than 100 people were arrested in repeated protests calling for a hearing on the bill. Wearing black “Add the 4 Words” T-shirts, they blocked entrances to the Idaho Senate until they were arrested and led away by police, standing silently with their hands over their mouths, to signify that they hadn’t been heard.
“We’ll have a thorough hearing,” Bedke promised. “If it takes multiple days, that’s fine. We want to hear everyone that wants to testify, on both sides. I have full confidence that this will be done in a way that’s befitting the issue and befitting the legislative process.”
In the years that the Legislature has resisted the anti-discrimination legislation, 10 Idaho cities, including Sandpoint, Coeur d’Alene, Moscow and Lewiston, have passed local ordinances banning discrimination against gays. The small eastern Idaho city of Driggs became the 10th on Jan. 6.
Lisa Perry, an organizer with the “Add the Words” campaign, welcomed the bill’s introduction Wednesday.
“We’re looking forward to telling our legislators why these protections would help ensure that people who work hard and meet their responsibilities have the chance to get ahead,” she said. “We need to add the words, nothing more, nothing less.”
The Idaho Human Rights Act currently bans discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability, but not sexual orientation. That means in Idaho, outside the 10 cities, it’s currently legal for someone to be fired, evicted or denied service at a business solely because they are gay. A statewide poll of Idahoans, taken in late December and released last week, found that 67 percent of Idahoans favor banning discrimination against gays.
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