The Idaho House of Representatives voted 53 to 17 Monday to send an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Senate. The decision was no surprise, but after 90 minutes of intense floor debate, the previously amiable atmosphere under the Capitol dome crackled with mistrust.
Lawmakers said "Amen" to a distinctly Christian prayer by the chaplain and discussed the Bible on equal footing with the Constitution. Debate points ranged from noble to strange, but nothing distracted those who entered the chamber already blinkered and hitched up. The vote was very close to party lines.
Last week in House State Affairs, Sponsor and House Majority Leader Lawerence Denney (R-Midvale) introduced House Joint Resolution 2, then left the room without hearing any testimony.
Supporters of HJR 2 wore stickers saying "Let The People Decide," and several of them said they backed the measure because it was a vote to put the question on the November ballot. "No matter what we think about marriage, surely we can all agree that the people have a right to decide," said Denney.
But Leslie Goddard, chair of the Idaho Human Rights Commission, asked, "If the people proposed an amendment denying marriage to those of a certain race or religion, would you 'let the people decide?' You know you would not."
Julianne Russell held her toddler in her arms while her husband and their other three children stood around her at the microphone. "My children, and all the children of Idaho, deserve to grow up in a state where lawmakers will always turn their backs on legislation that has, as its basis, exclusion," she said.
Speaking for the amendment, Boisean Robert Brown said, "What we propose is not a change, but a further anchoring of what is already in place ... temperance, morality and purity of the home is your sworn duty and first concern."
Weiser resident and former city councilman Tony Edmondson movingly came out of the official closet in his testimony about his lifetime partner, a Vietnam veteran, and their long record of family and public service. "They want to bar a 35-year, family-based commitment, from the civil liberties afforded everyone else in this state, including convicted felons! What comes next? Pink triangles sewn on our sleeves, or something uglier and more divisive?" he asked.
Bryan Fischer, saying he represented Idaho Values Alliance, said, "If counterfeits are allowed to circulate freely, it won't be long before the value of real becomes meaningless. Diluting the definition of marriage has serious consequences."
In one of several testimonials by religious leaders to directly confront the so-called Christian right's definition of morality, Rabbi Dan Fink of Boise's Congregation Ahaveth Beth Israel responded, "In what has become a sad and tedious ritual of intolerance, we once again debate the 'Defense of Marriage' amendment ... This bill is all about the faithless fear that there isn't enough love to go around. It claims that in recognizing the unions of lesbians and gay men, society would somehow diminish heterosexual marriages. This is the religious right's morality of miserliness." The Reverend Susan Waterson of Boise First Congregational United Church of Christ said, "There are people of deep faith in Jesus Christ who do not believe in this unjust and mean-spirited resolution."
In floor debate, several legislators questioned Denney about the bill's full intent and meaning. Rep. Tom Trail (R-Moscow) noted, "Even Bush and Cheney have shown some support for civil unions." Denney confirmed that HJR2 would deny all forms of legal protection that are now available to heterosexual couples,, including civil unions and domestic partnerships to same-sex couples.
Objections to the perceived need for HJR2 came from Rep. Mike Mitchell (D-Lewiston), who said, "Not one person asked me to come down here [to Boise] and outlaw gay marriage," and Rep. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow), who added, "Marriage isn't under any threat in the state of Idaho. There are other threats ,such as our 58 percent divorce rate that are more important. Are we going to lay that at the feet of gay people? Or will we take up more important issues such as people trying to make ends meet with low wages?"
In perhaps the weirdest speech on the issue, Rep. Joe Cannon (R-Blackfoot) said that sexuality falls along a 1 to 10 scale, with one, two and three being gays and "others," and eight, nine and 10 being married couples with children and a traditional home. "My concern is for the fives and sixes who could go either way," he said. "I can't get along with my husband, or can't get along with my wife, I can get along with my college roommate better--well maybe that's my sexual preference." He said, "In my mind, that is not healthy. They will be unhappy."
No matter what reasons legislators gave for their approval of HJR2, it was clear that the conflict is one of opposite views of the legislative system and its role in creating or enforcing a moral high ground. Dancing around this fundamental impasse with words did not conceal the anguish on the faces of opponents of the amendment, nor did it hide the restrictive intent of its backers.
Rep. Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise), Idaho's first openly gay legislator: "We are writing history here today. Your vote is how you will go on record in history on my life, on my personhood."
Denney: "We can and we must legislate moral laws."
Ringo: "We must not legislate our beliefs to the point where they fly in the face of someone else's."