David Adler: Idaho Legislature has responsibility to extend rights

September 19, 2013 

The speeches and lectures throughout Idaho in celebration of Constitution Day — including those that justly praised the men and women who have sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom, urged commitment to civic education, and illuminated the aims and purposes of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — struck the right keys.

Lost in the tributes and celebrations, however, was a reminder of the responsibility of the Idaho Legislature to make whole the rights and liberties of all Idahoans by adding to the Idaho Human Rights Act language that would protect gays from discrimination in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. Celebration of the great principle of “equal protection” is rendered meaningless if it is not extended to all citizens.

The “Add the Words” campaign, designed to eliminate discrimination against a vulnerable part of Idaho’s population, deserves not merely a hearing in the Legislature — which it has yet to receive — but enactment.

Many Idahoans, surveys reveal, are unaware that gay and transgender citizens can be fired from their jobs or denied housing because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The vast majority of Idahoans support passage of anti-discrimination measures.

In fact, the Legislature’s failure to take seriously the principle of equal protection has been remedied — in part — by several Idaho cities that have enacted anti-discrimination ordinances. Boise, Sandpoint, Moscow, Ketchum, Pocatello and, most recently, Idaho Falls have passed measures to fill the void created by the Legislature’s lack of vision, leadership and commitment to civil rights.

The oversight of the Legislature and, frankly, of Gov. Butch Otter, who has not publicly called for the passage of “Add the Words,” is deeply disturbing, odd and puzzling.

Our brothers and sisters in the gay community, after all, bear all of the obligations and duties of citizenship, pay their fair share of taxes and serve in the military, some sacrificing their lives for a state that treats them as second-class citizens.

Will legislators unwilling to accord legal protections to gays sponsor legislation that would exempt them from paying taxes? There is, in the double standard employed by many legislators, the scent of the hypocrisy of England’s denial of representation to American colonists — those who, a nation recalled on Constitution Day, famously declared: “No taxation without representation.”

Many of Idaho’s legislators are avowed history buffs and speak in reverential tones when discussing our forefathers. They would do well to consider and re-examine the consistency of their reasoning on “Add the Words” within a historical context.

Celebrations of a constitutional system that ignore the importance of civil liberties and civil rights for all of our citizens fall flat. Celebrations of freedom for some, but not all, have a hollow ring. Praise for a political system that promotes justice, but denies it to some of our most innovative, successful and hard-working citizens, is empty.

As Idaho’s legislators prepare for the next session, they should focus attention on the fact that their failure to enact the “Add the Words” measure represents, essentially, a declaration that gays in Idaho are second-class citizens. That cannot be a comforting thought for our lawmakers.

Surely, it cannot be part of the legacy for which they will be remembered by speakers who remind audiences at future Constitution Day conferences that Idaho lawmakers paid mere lip service to the magisterial concepts of equal protection and justice for all.

Idaho’s legislators can create a better legacy for themselves, and for the Gem State.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.

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