Monday, January 26, 2015

Reporter's Notebook: Add the Words, The First Morning

Posted By on Mon, Jan 26, 2015 at 1:08 PM

click to enlarge Steve Mounkes of Wilder drove to Boise to voice his opposition to HB 002 - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Steve Mounkes of Wilder drove to Boise to voice his opposition to HB 002
Jan. 26, at 8 a.m., the House State Affairs Committee began hearing testimony on HB 002—better known as the Add the Words bill—which would add  the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to Idaho's human rights law. The proposed law would make it illegal to discriminate against people in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations. 

HB 002 is titanically controversial. During the 2014 legislative session, members of the Add the Words movement were arrested for obstructing entrances to legislative meeting rooms, including the House and Senate chambers. In all, more than 100 arrests were made. Opposition to the bill has been fierce, as well, and has come from some faith and civic groups that see "adding the words" as creating a specially protected class of citizens that enjoy special rights trumping even the free practice of religion. 

Nowhere was this tension more evident than in the line extending from the Lincoln Auditorium, where the HSAC meeting was to be held, almost all the way across the Capitol's Garden Level; but there was a general excitement about participating in the political process. University of Idaho student Sarah Jacobsen, of Hayden, said this was her second time at the Capitol, though it was her first time "being a constituent."  

Steve Mounkes had driven from his Wilder home to testify against the bill. He wrestled with a sign taped to a ruler that read, "Are you really going to Dictate what we can say or do in our Businesses and Churches? We have a name for that: Tyranny. The 1st Amendment guarantees free speech!"

Mounkes told BW that "a judge shouldn't have the power to overrule the people." 

Jessica Peters said that someone at her church whose daughter works at the Capitol told her that "Preachers could be thrown in jail" for refusing to conduct same-sex marriages. Peters was in line with her husband and four small children to oppose the bill. 

click to enlarge Jessica Peters (middle) worries that passage of HB 002 would mean that pastors who do not perform same-sex marriages could be thrown in jail. - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Jessica Peters (middle) worries that passage of HB 002 would mean that pastors who do not perform same-sex marriages could be thrown in jail.
A few feet away from Peters, a group of young people huddled somberly over a camera. High-school students elsewhere in line had skipped class to testify in favor of the bill. Veterans of the Add the Words movement who'd been led out of the Statehouse in handcuffs in 2014 chatted amiably with Idaho State Police officers. 

Inside the Lincoln Auditorium, testimony was balanced between those in favor and those against the bill, though some, including Idaho Falls City Council Member Barbara Erhardt, testified that the broader conversation surrounding HB 002 is lopsided.

"The LGBT community has controlled this conversation ... painting anyone who disagrees with [HB 002] as a bigot," she said.

Testifying before the committee, however, members of the LGBT community told legislators about discrimination that they'd experienced. Some had been sexually assaulted, denied service and bullied, and for them, HB 002 would create a legal framework for addressing systemic injustices.

Julie Zicha spoke about her son, who suffered housing and employment discrimination, as well as physical abuse and other forms of bullying. After sending his parents a text message telling them it wasn't their fault, he killed himself in 2011. 

"I knew this was a goodbye message," she said. Zicha now works with at-risk LGBT youths. 

Others, testifying in favor of the bill, said that the bill satisfies a pre-existing need in the state for protections.

Cameron McCowan, a business owner from Meridian, told the committee that the state already prohibits religious discrimination—religion being something people can choose—but since sexual orientation and gender identity aren't choices, there's a glaring legal gap.

"Members of the LGBT population really don't have a choice" about their sexuality, he said.

Testimony is set to continue the evening of Jan. 26, beginning at 5 p.m.


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