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Most Idaho Lawmakers Decline Invitation to Human Rights Discussion

“When we don’t provide these protections, we create an unprotected class. You create a class of people who do not feel safe in their own community, who don’t feel like if they are battered, they can pick up the phone and call the police."

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Idaho lawmakers had the opportunity to learn why nearly 80 percent of Idahoans support adding the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act at a Statehouse panel discussion Wednesday. Most lawmakers declined the invitation but a crowd of human rights supporters learned what adding the words means to Idaho.

The panel’s business leaders said anti-discrimination laws could boost the bottom line. A local pastor aligned equality with the teachings of Jesus Christ. And elected officials explained why the majority of Idahoans support adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Act.

Collectively, the panel implored the absent lawmakers to, “Do the right thing.”

“Until all of us are free, none of us are free,” said panelist Rev. Marci Glass of Southminster Presbyterian Church.

The discussion hosted by Boise Democrats Rep. Grant Burgoyne and Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb foreshadowed some of the arguments that could be generated by forthcoming legislation that would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act. That’s if the proposal makes it to print and gets a hearing.

“It’s hard to raise something every year and see it fail. But it would be worse to not raise it every year and just wonder, 'What if?' So it’s got to keep coming up every year. And if it fails every year, then we know who we have to educate. We know who needs to be held accountable for not being supportive. And we keep moving forward,” said panelist and Boise City Council Member Maryanne Jordan.

This legislative session would mark the seventh attempt to add gender identity and sexual orientation protections to state law. Last year’s attempt drew a partisan divide among the GOP-dominated Senate State Affairs Committee, which voted along party lines not to print the proposal, effectively killing the bill before lawmakers heard a word of public testimony.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is not an issue that ought to be diving Idaho the way that I think sometimes it has,” said panelist John Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Council member who backed that city's anti-discrimination ordinance. “The people who this has been the least controversial with are the people of Idaho. People from rural places like Sandpoint to urban places like Boise have overwhelmingly supported these protections. They believe that their fellow citizens should have the same rights that everyone else has.”

A December 2011 survey conducted by noted Republican pollster Moore Information and commissioned by the ACLU of Idaho found that 78 percent of Idahoans supported legal protection against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

Jordan noted that adding gender identity and sexual orientation to state antidiscrimination laws would not create a special class. Right now anyone—gay, straight, lesbian, transgender or otherwise—could face discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodation because of who they love or what they look like. Everyone has a gender identity and sexual orientation, human rights advocates say.

Jordan commended the bravery of Boiseans who came before the Boise City Council to testify on behalf of the citywide anti-discrimination ordinance that was adopted at the end of 2012. She said many of those who spoke did so without the protection of a law that would make it illegal for an employer to fire them or a landlord to evict them because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jordan said she knew that Boise had to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance after hearing story after story from people who had been the victims of gay bashing and other hate-based assaults but kept the crimes secret out of fear of retribution for outing themselves as part of the police record.

“When we don’t provide these protections, we create an unprotected class. You create a class of people who do not feel safe in their own community, who don’t feel like if they are battered, they can pick up the phone and call the police,” Jordan said.

The quiet challenge to the widely supported city ordinance came from people who cited religious opposition to the measure. But Glass said that her faith moves her to support human rights for everyone.

“My call as minister of the good news of Jesus Christ is to proclaim justice to the oppressed and to stand with the people as Christ would. Jesus offered radical hospitality inviting all people—no exceptions—all people to participle in the work of God’s mercy and love,” Glass said.

“While scripture says little about sexual orientation, it says quite a bit about justice and hospitality and welcoming the stranger. My stance for nondiscrimination is deeply rooted in the word of God—a God who created each of us—all of us—in the image of God and declared that creation good.”

Pam Parks with the Idaho Human Rights Commission noted that the Idaho Human Rights Act was written so that it could evolve. Amendments to the act added protections for people with disabilities, and Parks said the act needs to continue to evolve.

“We need to (amend) it again until we are all protected,” Parks said.

“The commission continues to support this amendment to the Human Rights Act because the amendment holds fast to the state requirement to protect personal dignity, and it ensures that all people within this great state enjoy the fundamental freedom to work, pray, live and play free of discrimination.”

Jordan said that since the passage of the Boise city ordinance, no complaints have been filed under the new law.

“But what we have had is people coming to us and saying, ‘We woke up on Jan. 1st and we felt safer in Boise.’ I think we need to extend that feeling statewide.”