2 months’ planning, 3 hours, all for 4 words

Stymied, gay rights supporters try a new tactic — blocking access to the Idaho Senate as 44 get arrested

AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESSFebruary 4, 2014 

Police led those arrested to a nearby room, cited each for trespassing and released them to break up the protest midmorning.

The incident was planned for about two months, including a two-hour training on how protesters could remain peaceful and silent, said organizer and former Idaho Sen. Nicole LeFavour. The group set up at the Capitol at about 8 a.m. Monday.

The demonstrators wore black-and-white “Add the 4 Words Idaho” T-shirts and covered their mouths with their hands, a symbolic gesture intended to call attention to a bill that would add the words — “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” — to Idaho law banning discrimination in employment, housing and business services. Idaho Republicans have blocked passage of such a proposal for eight years, and they have declined to hold a hearing on such a plan this year.

Those protesters willing to talk Monday offered personal reasons on why they were willing to risk arrest.

Meredith Butts, an 18-year-old Boise High student, said she doesn’t “think it’s fair that people my age, my friends, should have to live in fear of being discriminated against.”

Shelley Axtell, 70, of Boise, said she worries about her granddaughter facing bias and improper hurdles in housing, employment and education. “She’s a student at Idaho State University in Pocatello, and I fear for her.”

Madelynn “Lee” Taylor, 74, of Meridian, is a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who said she was refused a burial plot for herself and her wife at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery. Her wife, Jean Mixner, died 18 months ago. “I would like to be buried with veterans,” Taylor said.

The arrests Monday began after Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill attempted to enter the chamber about 11 a.m. but was blocked. About a half hour earlier, organizers had sent notice to media outlets saying arrests were imminent.

“We respect your right to protest, but we also have the right to do the job people elected us to do,” Hill told protesters before police intervened. He said it was “irresponsible” for them to block the hearing room.

“Those are the chambers, and they belong to all the people, not just this group.”

Idaho State Police said they arrested the demonstrators with help from Boise police and Ada County sheriff’s deputies.

LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker, was the last to be arrested. She moved onto the Senate floor after the other demonstrators were removed, and the Senate first had to vote to suspend for the day its rule that allows former senators floor access.

After she was released, LeFavour said she was treated respectfully.

“We have no issue with police,” she said. “Our issue is with a Legislature that won’t stand up and say ‘cruelty to gay, lesbian and transgender people is wrong.’ ”

Trespassing is a misdemeanor and carries a possible sentence of up to six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines. LeFavour said a legal defense fund has been set up at the Downtown Boise D.L. Evans Bank under the name “Add the Four Words.”

Gay rights have made recent headlines in Idaho. In a pending federal case, four couples sued to overturn Idaho’s 8-year-old ban on gay marriage.

A Republican lawmaker introduced a bill last week to forbid the state from revoking professional licenses of people who refuse service or employment on religious grounds, triggering opposition from gay rights and civil liberties groups.

Idaho is barring same-sex couples legally married in other states from filing joint Idaho income tax returns.

Add the Words supporters believe popular opinion is on their side. Boise, Sandpoint, Ketchum, Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello, Idaho Falls and Moscow all have instituted sexual orientation-based protections for gay residents in the past few years. With the movement stymied at the state level, the group said it had no choice but to take a more visible stand.

Monday, LeFavour predicted additional action if lawmakers don’t agree to hold a hearing: “I don't think you could stop people from showing up in greater numbers to do something peacefully, but pointedly, again and again and again.”

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