Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Despite Flood of Opposition in 3-Hour-Plus Hearing, Idaho House GOP Gives New Life to 'Religious Freedom' Bill

Posted By on Wed, Feb 5, 2014 at 1:07 PM

Hundreds packed three rooms at the Idaho Statehouse Feb. 5 to testify against a religious freedom bill.
  • Jessica Murri
  • Hundreds packed three rooms at the Idaho Statehouse Feb. 5 to testify against a "religious freedom" bill.

Two hours into a emotion-packed hearing where Boise GOP Rep. Lynn Luker introduced a bill to "enhance state protections for free exercise for religion," House State Affairs Committee Chairman Thomas Loertscher cautioned his committee to "brace yourselves," as a 21-page-long list of citizens continued to testify against the measure, in overwhelming opposition.

And following another hour-and-a-half of testimony, the committee decided that the bill needed some wordsmithing but it still remained very much alive.

In addition to the committee room, two overflow rooms were packed with hundreds of people who made their way to the Idaho Capitol Wednesday morning after getting late word Tuesday afternoon that the committee would take up Luker's bill.

As Wednesday morning became Wednesday afternoon, Loertscher repeatedly warned citizens that he would "not tolerate any attacks toward any member of the House or this committee."

Yet, hour after hour, citizens pushed back against House Bill 427, sponsored by Luker.

"This corrects a defect in our Religious Freedom Restoration Act," said Luker, adding that Idaho's existing law allows people to use religion as a defense against a government action, but are not protected if they were to be sued by another part. "If a person is being burdened in their exercise of religion based upon a government-created policy, then they should have a right to raise that issue."

Luker told the committee that currently the Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects people if they're sued by government for refusing service to people that they say conflict with their faith beliefs. Luker says the current law, however, doesn't protect people of faith from being sued by individuals who believe they've been discriminated against.

In particular, Luker pointed to a New Mexico case involving a wedding photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex marriage ceremony, and was penalized under that state’s prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Boise Democratic Rep. Holli High Woodings questioned if Luker's bill would tangle with anti-discrimination ordinances that have been passed in numerous Idaho cities, including Boise.

"Can you explain how this law would apply when a city has an anti-discrimination ordinance that is not the same as the state's Human Rights Act?" asked Woodings.

Luker insisted, "Most laws are enforced by the city government. But right now, if the city prosecutes a case in one of those jurisdictions, an individual could raise the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as their defense. RFRA already applies."

But Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan took Luker to task.

"The city of Boise is prepared to defend our ordinance," said Jordan. "We will not allow a segment of our community to be unprotected."

Jordan said Luker's bill "codified discrimination and could negate (anti-discrimination) ordinances across the state."

Episcopal Church of Idaho Bishop Brian Thom, the spiritual leader of 30 congregations across the Gem State, also voiced his opposition to the measure, saying it would "distort a protection of religious freedom."

"As St. Paul confirms, 'We all see through a glass dimly,'" said Thom. "In a state that prides itself on a limtied intrusion of government, this amendment has consequences that inflict emotional injury."

Two representatives of the Cornerstone Family Council testified in support of Luker's bill, with Cornerstone's Julie Lynde saying, "I can't tell you how much I appreciate you having this hearing."

"The free exercise of religion is our first freedom," said Lynde. "It's the freedom on which all other freedoms rest."

But outside of the hearing room, Teresa Waters, holding a sign that read, "Love is Love," told Boise Weekly that, "We already have laws that protect religion."

Teresa Waters:We already have laws that protect religion.
  • Harrison Berry
  • Teresa Waters:"We already have laws that protect religion."

After nearly three-and-a-half hours of testimony, Luker returned to the microphone to say, "This is my favorite part of the process. But I must admit that the testimony has had some personal impact on me."

Ultimately, Luker suggested to the committee that his bill be sent to "general orders," meaning that Luker's bill will be re-worked, but is expected to surface again before the House State Affairs Committee sooner than later.

But Woodings and her fellow Democrats didn't like Luker's suggestion and proposed that the bill be killed.

"I want us all to remember that 'general orders' can be a very, very messy place, where terrible things can happen and great things can happen," said Woodings. "I urge us to err on the side of caution."

Two Republicans, Priest Lake Rep Eric Anderson and McCammon Rep. Kelly Packer sided with three Democrats in their losing effort to kill the measure, while 11 Republicans voted to send Luker's bill to general orders, meaning that the bill could surface again in the next few days.

Meanwhile an opinion offered from the office of the Idaho Attorney General said that House Bill 427 was "vulnerable to a constitutional challenge," and "could subject employees to personal liability when they are simply doing their job, and a court later decides that the state or local government policy burdened free exercise of religion."

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