Thursday, January 29, 2015

After Historic Three-Day Hearing, Idaho's Add the Words Bill Dies in Committee

Posted By on Thu, Jan 29, 2015 at 11:57 AM

click to enlarge HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
Minutes after Idaho's "Add the Words" bill was defeated in a 13-4 party-line vote Jan. 29, a huge group of the bill's supporters, hands covering their mouths as they did during protests in 2014, had lined the wall of the Senate side of the Garden Level of the Idaho Statehouse. Between Jan. 26-29, their cause had gone from being a demonstration in support of adding  "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" to Idaho's human rights law, into a bill. In five minutes, it had gone back to being a demonstration.

Democratic Reps. Paulette Jordan (Plummer), John McCrostie (Garden City) and Melissa Wintrow (Boise)—who, along with Rep. Elaine Smith (D-Pocatello), represented the bill's sole supporters on the House State Affairs Committee—made the rounds, hugging and consoling weeping allies of the movement.

"This is a historic day in our history," Wintrow told the demonstrators. "And we're on the right side of it."

The Add the Words movement indeed has some history—nine years of it. Meanwhile, in the absence of state action, individual cities across Idaho have created nondiscrimination ordinances protecting their LGBT citizens from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. So have numerous states across the country as awareness increases of the discrimination LGBT people face. But in the Lincoln Auditorium half an hour earlier, members of the House State Affairs Committee told an audience of mostly supporters of the bill why they disagreed with the measure—or why they thought it would be ineffectual.

"When we carve out protections for one group, they're taken from another," Dalton Gardens Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri said. "This bill is a sword, not a shield."

Rep. Peter Nielsen, a Republican from Meridian, explained why he would vote against sending the bill to the House floor in a long speech about being taught decency and fairness by his parents, rather than nondiscrimination being enforced by law.

"You can't legislate the things I learned as a kid," he said.

Nielsen said during his primary election, he was never asked by his constituents about "adding the words," but now his phone messaging system and email inbox are full of testimony that's largely against the bill.

click to enlarge Rep. McCrostie hugging a supporter of the Add the Words bill - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Rep. McCrostie hugging a supporter of the Add the Words bill
Lava Hot Springs Republican Rep. Ken Andrus worried that "if we pass this legislation, I think we're going to create a barrier" between the LGBT community and "so-called straight" people. What's more, he said, "hundreds of thousands of people" may feel like the bill before the committee would infringe on the religious liberty of those who see "LGBT" as an acronym for a "lifestyle" contrary to their values.

Many of the bill's opponents indicated that they believe creating protections for LGBT people in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations  would impinge on the "sincerely held" religious beliefs of others. But those committee members in favor of forwarding it to the House floor disagreed, arguing that LGBT people face discrimination that won't go away on its own.

"I do not believe human rights should be up to a popular vote," said Wintrow. 

McCrostie, Idaho's only openly gay lawmaker, agreed, saying that when one group is discriminated against, discrimination in general is permitted to grow.

"This isn't the gay guy casting the gay vote for the gay bill," he said. 

When the final roll was called and the Add the Words bill went down to defeat, a low wail came up from the audience. Over three days, nearly 200 people had testified on the bill—134 in favor, 54 opposed and two neutral. On Jan. 29, as with other days of the hearings, the crowd was made up mostly of supporters. Members of Idaho's LGBT community had waited nine years for such a bill to appear before a legislative committee, and even after almost 22 hours of testimony, their desire to see it through to its conclusion had not dimmed. Nevertheless, the despondence in the room was palpable, and it followed the crowd into the hall and the world beyond. 

Walking out of the Capitol, a young woman with tears in her eyes lit up a cigarette and paused at the top of the stairs leading to the Garden Level.

"I don't know why I'm so disappointed," she said.

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