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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After years of racist history, Coeur d’Alene city council unanimously passes hate crime ordinance

Tom Sanner holds a “Coeur d’Alene Rejects Hate” sign toward David Reilly, left, a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist, during a news conference about the racial harassment of a group of basketball players from the University of Utah women’s team during the NCAA tournament in Spokane in March 2024.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The Coeur d’Alene City Council, with approval from the mayor, unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday night that makes hateful acts illegal, following a string of recent high-profile incidents in the city.

Most council members said they voted for the ordinance protecting people against discrimination by race, disability, religion or sexuality because “it’s the right thing to do.”

“We’re here to protect the community and protect the people we love dearly,” Councilwoman Amy Evans said, just before passing the ordinance. “Hate will not be tolerated, and should not be tolerated, in Coeur d’Alene and surrounding areas.”

The new “hate crimes” ordinance adds a portion into the city’s municipal code that says if a person commits a criminal act, and that act has discriminatory intent, they can be charged with an additional misdemeanor. This includes crimes like assault and battery, threats, disorderly conduct, conspiracy and malicious injury to property.

The city also included provisions for harassment and intimidation, a lower bar within the city of Coeur d’Alene than Idaho’s law prohibiting malicious harassment.

Idaho law makes it illegal for someone to harass another person with threats or to cause damage to their property or person, including because of their national origin. But since state law doesn’t use the term “hate crime,” not all cases of verbal abuse or harassment can be prosecuted. The malicious harassment clause is also missing any mention of sexuality or gender identity, something that is woven into Coeur d’Alene’s new ordinance.

The new ordinance in Coeur d’Alene states someone has to believe bodily injury will occur as a result of their “actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability, or national origin” for prosecution to potentially take place – a first in Coeur d’Alene, a place with a notorious history for racism.

In 1973, white supremacist Richard Butler moved to North Idaho and built the Aryan Nations compound just north of Hayden Lake, which drew more than 100 other white supremacists to the region. The group held parades in downtown Coeur d’Alene and annual summits at the compound.

As Nazi flags flew and children hailed Hitler in the street parades, Jewish businesses were getting vandalized. For the 20 years following Butler’s compound establishment, police were investigating those tied to the Aryan Nations attempting to bomb public buildings in downtown Coeur d’Alene and Spokane. And two years ago, a group of 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front from across multiple states planned to instigate a riot at a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene City Park.

As the new law follows years of white supremacy in the region, it also comes after the decision prosecutors made in May declining to charge a suspect for allegedly yelling racial slurs from his car at the University of Utah women’s basketball team, who were staying in Coeur d’Alene for the NCAA tournament in March. Many public commentators and council members referenced this incident when speaking at the meeting on Tuesday evening.

If this new ordinance was in place at the time the players said they were racially harassed, it likely would still not classify as a hate crime, said Councilman Dan Gookin.

“(You) can’t judge it by the content of the speech… As long as you’re not inciting violence,” he said. “Had he stopped the car and got out, that would be different.”

But “injuring property,” Gookin said, like painting a swastika on a family’s garage because they’re Jewish, could fall under the new code.

Those who spoke against the bill during the meeting voiced concern over First Amendment violations. One man said while he supports punishing bigoted action, it’s not an elected officials’ job to constrain speech.

Gookin said part of his biggest concern was the First Amendment, which is why he spent an extensive period researching codes in other cities and speaking with attorneys. The new code only applies to established crimes, but is enhanced with the motivation of hatred or discrimination – meaning a person will be prosecuted for the underlying crime, but also for a hate crime.

City Attorney Randy Adams said during the meeting he wanted to emphasize that the new law “does not criminalize speech or hateful beliefs,” but it’s an effort to “punish the conduct of selecting a victim based on race and other characteristics.”

Similar laws in Idaho exist, Adams said. Those are called “intent crimes,” or crimes that center around the person’s motives before and during the commission of a crime.

“Those intent crimes are perfectly legal, perfectly valid and do not violate the Constitution,” Adams said. “… We are not launching the city into the unknown.”

Those who spoke in support of the ordinance at Tuesday’s meeting said they have personally witnessed discrimination of their friends or family on the street and have been waiting for the city to do something more concrete.

Human Rights Education Institute Executive Director Jeanette Laster told the council her annual data shows the region has a “growing issue” with discrimination, and “there is no more room for tolerance.” Solutions include making people feel safe enough to report the incident to police, who should take it seriously, she said.

“Send a clear message,” Laster said. “… These victims matter.”