NAACP asks Idaho lawmakers to listen in equality debate

jsowell@idahostatesman.comApril 5, 2014 

The NAACP added its voice Saturday to efforts to add civil rights protections for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people to the Idaho Human Rights Act.

Marvin Randolph, senior vice president for campaigns at the organization's Baltimore headquarters, said during a visit to Boise that discrimination is discrimination no matter what form it takes.

"The issues that the NAACP fights for are around justice, around equality and anything that affects any group of people," Randolph said. "It doesn't matter where they're from. It doesn't matter what their orientation is. When you codify discrimination of any type into the law and don't allow people to have rights, it's a very slippery slope."

Randolph appeared at a reception hosted by the nonprofit Fund for Idaho and held at the Bishop Tuttle House at St. Michael's Episcopal Cathedral. Randolph is a longtime friend of Gail Heylmun, executive director of Fund for Idaho, and her husband, Gary Sandusky, an organizer with the Center for Community Change.

The current fight, Randolph said, harkens back to the monumental 1967 U.S. Supreme Court Decision that invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, Randolph said.

Mildred Jeter, a black woman, and her childhood sweetheart Richard Loving, who was white, got married in Washington, D.C., in 1958 and then returned home to Virginia. They were arrested and charged with unlawful cohabitation and jailed.

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents," Judge Leon Bazile said in convicting the pair. "The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

Bazile sentenced Jeter and Loving to a year each in prison but suspended it on the condition they leave Virginia for 25 years. The couple went to live with relatives in Washington, D.C.. but were arrested for traveling together when they went to visit five years later.

"We have to fight these things on a lot of different fronts," said Randolph, who himself grew up in Virginia. "During the civil rights movement, it was based on race. It was based on how much melanin you had in your skin. Now, it's based on sexual orientation and it shouldn't be.

He criticized Idaho lawmakers for failing to even hear from advocates for adding the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the human rights act.

"To me, that's un-American. I mean, what this country was founded on is the right for people to express their viewpoints, to argue and debate something," Randolph said. "When a legislature or a governor or any body of government doesn't allow an issue just to be debated in public, it shows to me that's cowardice. That's fear. That's against what our founding fathers built with this great nation."

The civil disobedience campaign by Add the Four Words activists, which involved numerous silents protests at the Capitol during the recent legislative session and a number of arrests, may prod lawmakers into a different reaction next time, Randolph said.

"The first step to act is to start listening. You don't have to agree with something but you have to have an open dialogue where people can express their views," he said.

Heylmun said she believes the efforts have been productive.

"In Idaho, in my experience, all change is incremental. What has been happening this year with the Add the Words and the civil disobedience going along with that is another increment moving us toward progress and equality for all," she said.

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