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Boise Prepares to Add Its Own Words

'It’s very important we treat everyone with dignity and respect, no matter who they love.'

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Boise could become the next city in Idaho to extend nondiscrimination protection to gender identity and sexual orientation if a proposal slated for introduction before the Boise City Council wins the approval of city leaders.

Statehouse lawmakers refused to add the words in past legislative sessions that would have affixed "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Idaho's Civil Rights and Human Rights acts, leaving Idahoans vulnerable to discrimination and even hate crimes, according to LGBT advocates.

The lack of adequate support for the so-called "Add the Words" legislation left little-to-no protection from bias-based decisions in housing and employment. As a result, a select group of leaders has decided to find municipal solutions to help guarantee those rights.

Sandpoint became Idaho's first city to add gender identity and sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections to its city code in December 2011, and Pocatello is on track to follow suit with a similar ordinance. Now, a group of Boise leaders hopes to see the City of Trees enact its own nondiscrimination law with a measure that's slated for introduction before the end of the year.

"This has been about making it clear that all Boise residents should be treated equally and with dignity and respect," said Boise City Council Member Lauren McLean, who plans to introduce the measure. "Cities are doing this across the country and I thought that it was important that we do the same."

It remains legal in Idaho to evict, fire and refuse service to people based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Anecdotal reports suggest a recent increase in hate-based crime against Idahoans because of their sexual orientation or gender identity--crimes that often go unreported, advocates say, because victims fear losing their jobs and/or homes after outing themselves in police reports. McLean and City Council President Maryanne Jordan want to change that, at least within the boundaries of Boise.

"It's very important to Maryanne Jordan and I that, in Boise, we treat everyone with dignity and respect, no matter who they love," said McLean.

Sandpoint and Pocatello have joined more than 160 cities across the nation in banning sexual orientation- and gender identity-based discrimination in housing, public accommodations and employment.

The City of Boise has already adopted a personnel policy that protects city employees from gender identity- and sexual orientation-based discrimination, but that doesn't protect workers for other employers within the city or extend protections beyond the workplace. McLean said she wants to see broader safeguards enacted within Boise and is studying ordinances passed by other municipalities.

"A good strategy when making public policy is to learn from other cities," said McLean. "We have also looked at how our law in Boise works, and we're trying to craft an ordinance that will work well with Boise--for the people and the city."

LGBT advocates and thousands of Idahoans tried to persuade members of the Idaho House and Senate to add civil rights protections to state law earlier this year. The 2012 legislative session marked the sixth attempt to pass such a law, but a GOP party line vote in the Senate State Affairs Committee killed the bill.

"This [Boise] ordinance is about freedom for everyone," said Lisa Perry, who advocated for the Add the Words measure. "City leaders understand that all citizens should be treated with respect, fairness, compassion and equal protection under the law. They understand that this puts all of their citizens on an equal playing field with those who are currently protected under city ordinance. I applaud their leadership and hope the Idaho State Legislature follows."

Twenty-one states have gender identity and sexual orientation nondiscrimination protections on the books, and where other states have failed to pass such laws, some cities have stepped up to protect the vulnerable rights of its citizens.

"This is the proper role of government. The proper role of government is to ensure that people live free from civil rights violations, live free from harassment and have the ability to be employed, to have housing and live in their communities as a community member," said Monica Hopkins, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

"We all have a sexual orientation. We all have a gender identity. And so this is not about a special segment of the population," she said.

Boise advocates say a citywide nondiscrimination ordinance isn't just about liberty, equality and civil rights, but also good business sense, sound economic policy and ensuring a quality of life for everyone.

"We live in tough economic times," said Perry. "The people that live and work in cities that have passed ordinances similar to the one proposed by Boise know that they don't have to fear losing their job or home because of sexual orientation or gender identity. This has helped to build a safer community and Boise will become safer once the ordinance has passed. And employers see the right steps forward in cities with similar ordinances and they want to bring new businesses there. Cities that fail to offer basic protections are a turn-off for job creators."

McLean said she hopes to hear from more voices in Boise's business and faith communities in conversations and testimony, which would follow the measure's introduction before moving toward a City Council vote.

"I really feel confident that our council understands the importance of this," she said. "This is something that our citizens expect us to do."

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