Gay rights supporters hope for an Idaho miracle
|A group expresses disbelief with a silent protest outside the Senate State Affair Committee meeting at the Idaho Statehouse on Feb. 10 in Boise. A party-line Senate committee rejected even considering updates to Idaho’s Human Rights Act to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people from workplace and housing discrimination. (AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Chris Butler / March 5, 2012)|
Even as Washington state has celebrated the passage of a new law legalizing same-sex marriage, lawmakers in nearby Idaho have so far slammed the door on a grass-roots campaign to outlaw discrimination in housing, jobs and education based on sexual orientation.
At an emotional session last month in the Senate State Affairs Committee — where onlookers were in tears and the Democratic sponsor of the measure had to pause half a minute just to get his voice back — most Republican senators voted without comment against even printing the bill, preventing its introduction for hearings, discussions and a vote.
“They didn’t even feign interest. It was over in a matter of minutes,” Mistie Tolman, spokeswoman for the Add the Words campaign, told The Times. Some members of Add the Words looked on disbelief when the Senate committee took its action.
Now, though, it appears the antidiscrimination measure isn’t dead after all.
Two legislators have signaled their intention to try to introduce similar legislation in the House of Representatives. One of them,Rep. Leon Smith, is even a Republican — though coming out in favor of gay rights in some Idaho districts is like drinking political hemlock. Smith has already said he’s not running again.
“For a week or so we were a little bit discouraged, and then we had some response from the House side, who reworked the bill, and last week they submitted a similar bill,” Tolman said in an interview.
Like the doomed measure in the Senate, the proposed legislation would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act. About half the states in the U.S. already have such measures, Tolman said, and some Idahoans had taken encouragement from neighboring Washington’s passage in February of a law allowing same-sex marriages.
“People who are pushing to get these protections are really frustrated as we see states that are mere hours away from us, like Washington, passing marriage equality in their state, and in our state, we’re fighting tooth and nail just to get basic protections, like not getting fired because you might be gay,” she said.
The Feb. 10 hearing was attended by more than 250 supporters who had launched a stick-it note campaign across the state with thousands of yellow Post-its on car windows, mail-ins to legislators and state Capitol hallways with messages such as “No one should be fired for being gay” and “Support for all! Just do it already!”
But Idaho law requires a vote by the Senate leadership, seated on the State Affairs Committee, to accept the bill for printing before it can even be officially introduced for a hearing. It was quickly voted down on a voice vote, with two Democrats, including the bill’s sponsor, Minority Leader Edgar Malepeai, the lone audible “aye” votes in the room.
Malepeai had to pause during his pitch for consideration — normally, the Senate minority leader can at least get his bill printed — apparently battling emotion, the Magic Valley Times-News reported.
“In my opinion, it would be profoundly disrespectful not to afford those tens of thousands of families affected by this legislation to give at least — at least — a printing of the bill … [and] allow them to speak of the harm that’s been done,” he said.
Republican Sen. Curtis McKenzie, committee chairman, told The Times he had never intended to push for a full hearing on the bill because he believed it had no chance of passage. But he had pledged supporters he would vote to print it and would have done so, he said, had it come to a roll call vote, as he had expected. Instead, he said, no one called for a roll call, and it was quickly defeated on a voice vote. He said as chairman did not cast a vote.
“What I had anticipated would happen was the committee would vote to print, and I would hold it [back], so it wouldn’t be the committee taking the action, it would come down on the chairman. One of my roles is to kind of protect the caucus from votes, regardless of what side I would be on something,” McKenzie said.
Idaho’s lone openly gay legislator, Democratic Sen. Nicole LeFavour of Boise, said she believes there is substantial support on the floor of both houses — if the measure could ever come up for a vote.
“We’re about two votes short of what we’d need to pass it on both sides,” she said in an interview, though some other legislators expressed skepticism about that assessment.
“To me, to not even allow the legislation a public hearing, to not even introduce it, it’s the utmost of disrespect for an issue,” she said. On the other hand, she added, the measure may stand a better chance of a hearing in the House, “which does have a tendency to vote things up or down.”
Political analysts say the issue comes at a difficult time for Republicans in Idaho, who are wary of conservative voters at a time when the GOP is holding its first closed primary May 15.
LeFavour, for her part, has had it. She announced last month she would not seek a third term.
“Last year was extremely difficult here with what was done to public schools and to people with disabilities and those facing mental health and substance abuse issues,” she said of recent state budget cuts. “I felt, I guess you could say, the heartlessness with which those issues were dealt with, which was very disturbing to me. I’m afraid that heartlessness is playing out again with this bill.”
Still, Tolman said supporters of the antidiscrimination law aren’t about to give up.
“If we can just get those first few legislators to be brave enough, to have the courage to stand up and say no, then we’re hoping it will have a kind of domino effect,” she said. “I realize it’s kind of a long shot.”