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Idaho's Unfinished Quilt of LGBT Protections

Exploring Idaho's patchwork of nondiscrimination ordinances

by and

At 19 years old, Jesse Maldonado is the youngest city council member in Lewiston history. A graduate of Lewiston High School, he's currently a student at Lewis-Clark Community State College, has deep roots in the city and ran for office because he wants to have a hand in its continued business, cultural and civic development. That's why, when he ran for the Lewiston City Council in 2013, one of his campaign planks was to establish a nondiscrimination ordinance (NDO) that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from unfair practices in housing, employment and public accommodations.

"I wanted to be a person who asked questions that had never been asked before. We have made leaps and bounds as far as building our city. I wanted to take advantage of that and make sure it stays contagious," he said.

While the LGBT community in Idaho has ridden a judicial roller coaster on the path to striking down Idaho's 2006 voter-enacted same-sex marriage ban—as Boise Weekly was going to press, LGBT couples across the state were poised to greet marriage equality on the morning of Oct. 15—not everybody gets married. Everybody does need to have access to employment, housing and accommodations like hotels and public restrooms. Since the Idaho Legislature has for years refused to include such protections in the state's human rights law, cities have been forced to take it on themselves to pass nondiscrimination measures. So far, eight communities have passed NDOs, including Boise, Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Falls, Ketchum, Moscow, Pocatello, Sandpoint and, most recently, Victor.

Under Maldonado's leadership, Lewiston is poised to become the ninth, when the Lewiston City Council is expected to consider a draft NDO on Monday, Oct. 27.

While the growing number of protective ordinances gives city officials an opportunity for self congratulation, not all NDOs are created equal.

Only one such measure—in Sandpoint—bars LGBT-based discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations without exception, other than regarding those rights guaranteed in the First Amendment or Idaho Constitution.

Every other NDO, from Boise to Victor, includes various stipulations allowing property owners to deny housing, employment and access to public facilities based sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lewiston's proposal, too, includes exceptions: one making it legal for the owner of a duplex or rental room in a single-family home to turn away LGBT residents, provided the owner of the house or duplex lives on-site; and another, likely to be introduced to the legislation before it goes up for a vote, exempting private clubs and religious institutions from following the law.

The measure is expected to clear the Lewiston City Council, though two of its seven members have voiced opposition, claiming the ordinance would create special rights for LGBT people while robbing others of the right to choose with whom they do business or rent a house or apartment.

"They feel forced and bound and handcuffed to serve [LGBT people], and that's not the truth," said Maldonado. "I had a great comeback to that at a meeting. What I said was, 'We don't grant special rights. The only rights that are being taken away is your right to discriminate against somebody.'"

A similar conversation took place in the Panhandle city of Sandpoint, where the first LGBT-specific nondiscrimination ordinance in Idaho was passed in 2011.

The Sandpoint NDO's yearlong path from inception to city ordinance sparked a community dialogue about the rights of citizens—in large part because there were misconceptions about what the ordinance does. Business owners wondered if they could be fined for denying service to LGBT customers and property managers worried they could be jailed for telling a same-sex couple they couldn't rent a house.

Sandpoint City Council members met those concerns with education about the ordinance. That, and the long road to passing the ordinance, helped consolidate support for the NDO, which punishes LGBT-based discrimination in the areas of housing, employment and access to public accommodations with up to six months in jail or a $1,000 fine. The ordinance also established a Human Relations Review Board to oversee the implementation and enforcement of the ordinance. It does not prohibit denying citizens those things for other reasons like poor job performance, unruly behavior or past criminal offenses, but some citizens were initially suspicious that the ordinance might be a reiteration of existing state or federal law.

According to former Sandpoint City Councilman John Reuter, who introduced and shepherded the ordinance, common questions were: "Why do we need to do this, and isn't this already protected by state and federal law anyway?"

"I politely explained that it wasn't covered currently. We have an opportunity to make sure [the LGBT community] is covered by our local laws," said Reuter, who now serves as executive director of Conservation Voters For Idaho in Boise.

Civic equality for LGBT citizens remains controversial, and community education on the ordinance didn't smooth over everyone's concerns. There were those whose opposition to providing any kind of protections for LGBT citizens was immovable. Reuter told Boise Weekly that he received a death threat in relation to the ordinance. Still, that resistance did little to slow the NDO's progress.

"We didn't have meetings flooded with people in opposition. We certainly didn't have well-organized opposition in our meetings," Reuter said.

From an outsider's perspective, the unanimous passage of Sandpoint's nondiscrimination ordinance seems like a textbook example of democracy in action, but the process was fraught with conflict. According to Reuter, the civic wheels were greased by being patient with the public and what he described as Sandpoint's "belief in equality."

"It only looks like smooth sailing now, but the reason it ultimately went through is because we took the time to have honest conversations with people and work it through the process. It was because the community as a whole supports those values," Reuter said. "We had a vibrant conversation about what religious exemptions should exist."

While the ordinance was meant to set in law what the Sandpoint community values about respecting equality and freedom, its effect on individual citizens was personal, and some LGBT citizens came to feel that their sexuality was no longer a liability. Reuter recounted the experience of a conservative city employee who sat in on city council meetings discussing the ordinance, her arms crossed. She never said anything during deliberations, and waited for months after its passage to approach Reuter.

"She never said a word until three months later, and she came up to me and said, 'John, I want you to meet my partner. I want you to know that this ordinance has changed my life. Throughout my life I've not gone to weddings for years and I worried that if I went with my partner I could lose my job,'" she said.