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Idaho legislative panel halts gay protections bill

January 29, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho lawmakers voted to halt a bill that would create protections for gay and lesbian people Thursday, siding with the concerns of religious freedom supporters.

The House State Affairs Committee —made up of the Legislature’s most conservative lawmakers— voted 13-4 to hold the bill in committee and prevent it from moving onto the House floor for a vote. Only Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

The proposal would have included the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in Idaho’s Human Rights Act. The law already bans discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin in situations like housing or employment.

Gay rights advocates had been trying for nearly a decade to get the issue, commonly known as ‘Add the Words,’ before lawmakers.

The movement peaked in 2014 after protesters disrupted the Statehouse with a series of civil-disobedience demonstrations —leading to more than 190 arrests throughout the session and forcing the hand of conservative legislative leaders, who conceded the time for a hearing had finally come. But while legislative leadership promised a hearing, no one hinted the bill would pass.

The decision on the bill’s fate came after to 21 hours of testimony spread out over three days from a majority of Idahoans in favor of the bill’s passage.

“I stand here today in the people’s house— black, female and woman of a certain age and the world has not stopped spinning on its axis,” said state Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, Idaho’s only black lawmaker, during the closing statement. “In the words of my tradition, I would ask we would be unified in our quest for justice ... Move forward with grace, vigor, wisdom and passion. It’s fair, it’s justice and it’s worthy of your ‘yes’ vote.”

Many of last year’s protesters were in the visibly emotional crowd Thursday while lawmakers voted down the legislation. They gathered in the halls and once again held hands over their mouths — with some silently crying — and walked out of the capitol. Others met in the public gallery overlooking the House and Senate chambers to stand in silent protest while lawmakers were in session.

Gay rights advocates celebrated a victory in October when a federal court overturned Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage. However, supporters said they will not stop fighting until anti-discrimination laws are also passed.

In the end, Republican lawmakers decided that the bill’s lack of definition of the addition of the four words was too great of a risk to the religious community. Primarily, lawmakers said that they feared the law would force a person to go against their held beliefs.

During Monday’s meeting, House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane asked lobbyist Bill Roden — who presented the bill to the committee— for the definition of sexual orientation. Roden, a Boise attorney who served in the Idaho Senate for four terms, declined to give an answer and said he wouldn’t draw a specific line.

Crane said Thursday that it was a defining moment on his voting decision.

“Definitions do matter, words do matter,” he said. “If you’re going to add words, we need to know what those definitions are.”

Rep. John McCrostie of Boise objected to the suspicions surrounding the bill’s impact on religion. As Idaho’s only openly gay lawmaker, McCrostie said unlike his peers, when he goes home each night, he’s at risk of being denied service at a restaurant.

“This isn’t the gay guy giving the gay vote. You don’t have to know I’m gay all the time. What you need to know when we’re talking education is that I have been a teacher for 12 years,” McCrostie said. “When we’re talking about updating the Idaho Human’s Right Act, that’s when you need to know that I’m gay.”

Committee chairman Rep. Tom Loertscher said cruelty has no place in society. He said that as an overweight man for most of his life, he understood living with discrimination, but he could not support the legislation as written.

“I am calling on people everywhere to get over themselves and to get past it,” said the Iona Republican.

Currently, 19 states have passed anti-discrimination laws that include sexual-orientation and gender-identity protections. Ten Idaho cities have approving their own anti-discrimination ordinances.

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