Shameful. The Idaho Statesman editorial Sunday, Feb. 12, ended with that one simple word. Shameful.
The Statesman’s strong rebuke was aimed at the eight Republican senators on the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee who refused to consider adding four words to Idaho’s law banning discrimination against individuals.
As far back as 1961, an enlightened Legislature wrote into law that freedom from discrimination is a civil right, specifically outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, sex or national origin. Age 40 and older was added in 1987, and disabilities in 1989. An employer can’t hire or fire one of us just because we are disabled or have grown older and less attractive.
And then the legislative books were slammed shut on the issue of discrimination. Yearly attempts to add the four words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Idaho law books have met a legislative brick wall. Public understanding and acceptance of same-sex relationships has changed around the nation in the 60-some years since 1961, but the majority side of the Idaho legislative body is still in the dark.
So, according to the Republican-led Idaho Legislature, it’s OK to discriminate against to refuse to hire or to rent to someone because of his or her sexual orientation or gender identity. There’s no protection against a landlord slamming the door in a face, or an employer firing an employee who has just come out.
Almost every one of us has gay or lesbian friends or family members whom we respect and cherish and who run the whole gamut of relationships that we human beings share with each other. This may include dislike and disapproval, but it never includes license to treat without respect.
This year, led by Senator Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, proponents of expanding the Idaho ban on discrimination to include gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender individuals, organized a sticky-note campaign. “Add the words” became the slogan that people around the state sent to their legislators, especially to members of the Senate State Affairs Committee. Sticky notes appeared on surfaces all over the Capitol Building.
The scenario as it played out in the Senate State Affairs Committee went like this: Some 250 people crowded into a Senate hearing room at 8 am on Friday morning, Feb. 10, to show support for “adding the words.”
Senate Minority Leader Edgar Malepaei, D-Pocatello, presented the proposed bill to the State Affairs Committee. Senator Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, moved that the bill be sent to print, with Senator Malepaei’s second.
Absolutely no discussion followed. When the chair called for a voice vote, Senators Stennett and Malepaei voted yes, all others mumbled nay and the hearing was over. And anti-discrimination against gays and lesbians is once again a dead issue in the Idaho Senate.
I was told that the audience was stunned. There were tears. There were shouts. Giving no reasons for their rejection, the Republican senators vanished to their offices behind the curtains. Their silence spoke volumes.
What's so shameful? First of all, in a democracy, where we are all equal, permitting any individual or group of individuals to suffer discrimination and the threat of possible injury is simply wrong, wrong, wrong.
The hearing was a sham. The Republican majority of the committee had already made up their minds and determined the issue would go nowhere.
Ignoring the public on an issue of obvious and real interest to a large segment of the population is a misuse of power and office.
The value of printing proposed bills is to get them into circulation for the public to comment on. Interested citizens can then relay support, opposition or improvements to legislators. Not printing a potential bill sweeps it under the rug where we can’t see it. Senators lost the opportunity to hear the individual stories and to try to understand the need for the legislation.
Their actions said they didn’t want to listen, they didn’t want to feel the pain, they didn’t want to try to understand.
At the same time, next door in Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire joined in the celebration of the Washington State Legislature’s passage of a bill allowing same-sex couples to marry.
That thin line that separates our two states may be invisible, but the public policy gap is as wide as an ocean.
Mary Lou Reed lives in Coeur d’Alene and is a former Idaho State Senator.