- Harrison Berry
- Hundreds of people turned out to the Idaho Statehouse earlier this month to demonstrate in favor of adding "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the state's human rights law.
Idaho Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would add "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to the state's human rights law.
A similar bill surfaced in the Idaho House during the 2015 legislative session. During lengthy public hearings, lawmakers heard from citizens frustrated with the state's failure to enact human rights protections for the LGBT community, while others worried amending the state's 1960s-era human rights law would infringe on religious liberties.
The current legislation, by Senate Minority Caucus Chairman Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise) and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Cherie Buckner-Webb (D-Boise), answers concerns raised during those hearings that the definitions of "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" were ambiguous, otherwise, Buckner-Webb said, "the language is very much the same."
"The thing that's important to stress here is the human rights act is for the most part unchanged," she added. "We don't want to create a second-class citizen. It's really not new business with us."
It's the product of a bipartisan working group of legislators who met over the summer of 2015 to address the issue. While neither Burgoyne nor Buckner-Webb would divulge the names of all members of the working group, one member was Senate Pro Tempore Brent Hill (R-Rexburg), whose name has begun to circulate in connection with a similar piece of legislation. The group has brought legislators with different viewpoints on the subject together to discuss a path forward for LGBT rights in Idaho.
"There are those who are concerned about religious freedom issues," said Burgoyne. "I have a different view: The Human Rights Act has provisions on religious liberty. It provides for religious liberty and I personally believe that those protections are sufficient. However, there are others who view it differently. There are other people who believe strongly that adding the four words is sufficient."
Buckner-Webb and Burgoyne's bill was introduced Jan. 19 and referred Jan. 20 to the Senate State Affairs Committee. It's up to Committee Chairman Sen. Curt McKenzie (R-Caldwell) and others to decide whether to move the legislation forward.
"I'm hopeful. Hope springs eternal," Buckner-Webb said of the bill's prospects.
"This is a long and frustrating process for everyone who's been involved in it, but this is the legislative process that we have; it's the way we have to go about it. I share the impatience of the stakeholders," Burgoyne said. "Every time we have not been able to get this bill passed I have a renewed sense of urgency."
Mistie Tolman, a field organizer for Planned Parenthood and board member of the Add the Words organization, echoed Buckner-Webb's feelings, but added the process of educating Idahoans about LGBT issues—particularly the Add the Words movement—is ongoing.
"One of the biggest things that's changed is public knowledge of the issue. There were a lot of people who didn't know you could fire someone just for being gay or transgender. In the beginning there was a lot of educating the average Idahoan that this had to be done," she said.
The 2015 hearings on an Add the Words bill in the House State Affairs Committee, Tolman said, helped lawmakers and the public hear stories about the significance of Idaho's lack of protections for LGBT citizens. According to Tolman, the next step is to show legislators the issue has achieved political critical mass.
"It was just showing the Legislature that this is what their constituents want," she said. "We're in that phase where we're trying to show them that we've tipped the scales on that support."
The Add the Words movement has advocated adding LGBT protections to the state's human rights law for a decade. The group it held its annual rally Jan. 15 at the Capitol steps—an event that brought hundreds to the Statehouse to hear speeches and make their voices heard.