BOISE – Idaho lawmakers heard three days of intense, emotional testimony on a bill to provide civil rights protections for gays before killing the legislation on a party-line vote.
Nevertheless, Rep. Ken Andrus, the Lava Springs Republican who moved to kill the bill, told supporters their concerns are “legitimate, very legitimate.”
“People in Idaho, in the Legislature, have heard you and are hearing you.”
Andrus said he wished “every employer … every landlord could have heard your stories, and I think they will, through this hearing. I think they will hear your stories.”
But he said he doesn’t feel that the bill, HB 2, adequately protects religious freedom.
The measure would have added the words ”sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination on those grounds.
This week’s hearing was years in the making; supporters of an “add the words” bill have sought a hearing on the anti-discrimination measure for the past nine legislative sessions without success.
As the committee members cast their votes Thursday, sobs were audible in the audience. Backers of the bill have filled the Capitol’s largest hearing room, the Lincoln Auditorium, for four days this week.
Public testimony stretched 22 hours over three days. Of the 190 people who testified, 134 were in favor, 54 were opposed, and two were neutral. Many told wrenching personal stories of abuse and harassment for being gay or transgender, including stories of being physically attacked, taunted at school, fired from jobs and rejected for housing. Several of the stories shared involved Idahoans who took their own lives as a result.
Four of the five North Idaho representatives on the committee voted against the bill; the exception was freshman Rep. Paulette Jordan, D-Plummer. She recalled her grandfather’s stories of returning from service in World War II to discrimination, including signs on stores saying “No dogs and no Indians allowed.”
Rep. Vito Barbieri, a Republican from Dalton Gardens, acknowledged that the testimony has been “heartbreaking.”
He added, “I can’t deny the compassion that is stirred in me listening to these stories, and I certainly feel no animosity to anyone in the LGBT community.”
He said he believes people are persecuted for their sexual orientation and that it needs to stop.
But, he said, “Laws haven’t stopped that behavior. A change of the heart, of each heart, has to happen to stop criminal behavior, and to date throughout mankind that hasn’t happened.”
He brought up the specter of “predators” using the bill’s protections for transgendered Idahoans to gain access to public restrooms.
“You have to recognize that in crime there are predators, and those predators will use anything they can use.” There were grumbles from the audience at his comments.
Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, a former Idaho Human Rights commissioner, said that government cannot “legislate self-worth.”
“This has been 21 hours of some very compassionate testimony and I’ve listened to it all,” she said. “But you know, the time I spent on Idaho’s Human Rights Commission taught me that mediation and compassion can be effective for both sides. I’m sure that eventually the Idaho Human Rights Commission will be chosen to deal with this.”
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, moved to pass the bill, but her motion failed. “We know that tolerance and inclusion is the way,” she said. “Let it get to the floor for everyone to weigh in. I think our state deserves that.”
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, also brought up rights based on “sincerely held religious beliefs,” and said HB 2 wouldn’t solve the tension between those rights and rights based on sexual orientation.
A visibly moved Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, voted against the bill but said he would “support a compromise.”
“From this point on and forever, I will be kinder and I will be more compassionate to those who bear a heavy burden,” he said. After the meeting, Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, the bill’s lead sponsor, said, “My question is: How do you compromise somebody’s rights?”
“If I learned anything from the last four days, it’s that there are incredible fears that are not based in fact, and I think there are some people that are advantaged by inflating the fears,” he said. “Did we move the ball at all this week? I think so. But that was not the intent, the intent was to get the law passed.”