One of the leading activist groups pressing for adding civil rights protections to Idaho state law for LGBTQ individuals is opting this year for a lower-key education and direct action approach to its efforts, a strategy that includes a daylong seminar at the Capitol on Saturday.
Over a lobbying and activism campaign that is now in its 11th year, the Add the Words group and its allies have traditionally held a January rally on the Capitol steps. This year, the effort moves indoors with a day of training for volunteers on how to engage constructively with lawmakers and teaching around topics of injustice and privilege. The Idaho ACLU and United Vision for Idaho, a statewide progressive coalition, are partners in the seminar on Saturday.
“Normally we would be having a rally right now,” said Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, the group’s chairwoman. “What we’re trying to get people to understand is it’s going to take more than showing up and holding a poster.”
What we’re trying to get people to understand is it’s going to take more than showing up and holding a poster.
Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, Add the Words chairwoman
Advocates, hundreds of whom have been arrested over the years in acts of civil disobedience in the Capitol, are seeking the addition of civil rights protections on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation — the four words to be added to the state human rights law that bans discrimination in employment, housing, education or public accommodations based on race, gender, religion, age or disability.
The Add the Words Activist Academy is 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Capitol Saturday.
The shift in strategy toward education and quieter direct outreach comes two years after a first-ever state legislative hearing in 2015 that, after three days of testimony, saw a bill die in committee on a party-line vote.
Two months later, lawmakers in Utah worked out a compromise that was seen as a potential breakthrough model for conservative states such as Idaho. The Utah law banned discrimination against LGBT people in housing and employment with certain exempted religious organizations. But the law dodged the question of discrimination in public accommodation, such as renting a hotel room or eating in a restaurant. A follow-up bill in 2016 in Utah was pulled back by its sponsor.
Progress on a compromise in Idaho stalled in 2016 amid new questions over how to balance LGBT rights where they might conflict with Idaho’s zealously guarded religious freedoms.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Idaho’s human rights law, unlike the applicable statute in Utah, covers discrimination in public accommodation. Language in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision supporting same-sex marriage complicated the religious freedom question by producing differing views from the justices on what exercise of religion means.
We are probably closer than most people think we are.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill
The majority opinion that supported same-sex marriage mentions rights to “advocate” and “teach” religion. A dissenting opinion faults the majority for failing to assert in their decision a right to “exercise” religion, saying the omission “creates serious questions about religious liberty.” That cautionary statement has raised concerns for those in the religious freedom camp.
So far in 2017, there is no action pending on an Add the Words bill. Members of another group called Add the Four Words protested in customary silence in the Capitol rotunda on Jan. 9 to mark the opening of the legislative session. Gov. Butch Otter, taking questions that day following his state of the state address, said he favored a Utah-style compromise and had asked lawmakers to look at it, but said it was the Legislature’s call.
On Wednesday, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, and Nicole LeFavour, a former state senator and an Add the Words advocate, met to discuss the issues that stand in the way of a compromise.
“We are probably closer than most people think we are,” Hill said Thursday. “Nobody wants discrimination, but there are fears out there that we need to address on both sides.”
He added there was an outside chance of legislation emerging this session. “But I wouldn’t say that’d be our best bet,” he said.
LeFavour was similarly upbeat, saying Thursday: “I think we may have some room to make some progress.” She said resolving the public accommodation question was critical to the conversation.
“That’s what people sat at lunch counters for,” she said of the 1960s civil rights protests at “whites-only” eating establishments in the South.
Gaona-Lincoln said the Add the Words group’s Saturday program is similar to what advocates do in seminars statewide when the Legislature is not in session.
“Headway inside the Capitol I think is slower than people would like it to be,” she said. “Outside the Capitol, as we continue to travel around the state, there are so many increasing groups that want to lift up this cause.”
Her group, she said, was not part of last year’s efforts at compromise legislation that addressed religious freedom concerns. Religion, she added, is already among the “most protected things in Idaho.”
“For me as a gay woman I really struggle with somebody telling me that they have a moral objection to my equal rights,” she said. “Really what we’re asking for is access to a process that would let us resolve issues of discrimination. Updating the human rights law would provide us the equal opportunity to access that process.”