Meridian wouldn’t be the first city in Idaho to enact a law protecting its LGBTQ community. It would be No. 13. It wouldn’t be the biggest city with such a law on the books. That would be Boise,which is more than twice the size of its solidly conservative neighbor to the west.
But if the Meridian City Council votes — as a proposed ordinance states — to “ensure that all persons regardless of sexual orientation and or gender identity/expression enjoy the full benefits of citizenship,” that action would be “huge,” said Chelsea Gaona-Lincoln, chair of Add the Words, Idaho.
Gaona-Lincoln’s organization has pushed unsuccessfully for the Idaho Legislature to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s Human Rights Act, ensuring that LGBTQ people are protected throughout the state from discrimination in housing, employment and other areas.
A Meridian law in the current era of political polarization would be “a signal, I would hope, to the rest of the state,” Gaona-Lincoln said, “that we’re not going to be left with this patchwork quilt, that someday we’ll have the protections no matter what city line we cross into.”
For now, though, it is Meridian’s turn to be, as City Council President Joe Borton puts it, a “compassionate, open-minded, welcoming community.” Borton is the measure’s sponsor. He said the council could vote on the ordinance as early as Tuesday, after a scheduled public hearing the same day.
‘Harassed and battered’
Borton said the Meridian proposal is modeled after Boise’s non-discrimination ordinance. One big difference is the impetus behind the municipal action. In Meridian’s case, no particular event led to Tuesday’s public hearing, he said, although community members and other members of the council have asked that such protections be enacted.
“It’s a recognition of it being the right thing to do,” Borton said. “It’s being proactive, not reactive. And that doesn’t make it any less appropriate, effective or necessary.”
Boise is another story entirely.
“Our ordinance was driven not only by the request of the LGBTQ community, but also by the police department,” said state Sen. Maryanne Jordan, who was president of the Boise City Council in 2012 and co-sponsored the measure. “They were dealing with incidents where people were harassed and battered in the Downtown area late at night.”
Jordan said police officers felt stymied because victims were reluctant to press charges for fear of retribution, that they might lose their jobs if their employers learned of their sexual orientation. On the plus side, she said, since the measure went into effect, there have been few discrimination complaints filed with the city.
“People understand that this is the law,” Jordan said. “We’ve had enormous support from the business community. … They knew that recruitment could be difficult if a city is not known for fairness. … Social justice is economic.”
A solution in search of a problem?
Not everyone in Meridian is entirely on board with the proposal. Council member Ty Palmer, whose Twitter feed describes him as “Mormon. Dad to four, husband to one,” has spoken out against what he views, in part, as a city wading in where the state should act.
“I’m against it,” Palmer said. “I’ve never had a single person approach me and say they’ve ever had an issue in their lives in Meridian and we need to fix it. We begin every meeting with 30 minutes open for anyone to come and talk about anything they want. We’ve never had anyone come and say, ‘I’ve been discriminated against. Please fix it.’ ”
The bottom line, he said, is that the proposed law could simply be a piece of “feel-good legislation” — a solution in search of a problem.
“I don’t think it’s a problem needing fixing,” Palmer said. “If there’s a problem, I prefer to let the free market handle it. I don’t know there is one.”
The business interest
But a 2017 report by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy found that LGBTQ individuals in Idaho do experience discrimination. The institute, which is part of the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law, also said that research links socioeconomic disparities with a lack of legal protections.
For example, the report said, “In response to a 2011 State of Idaho survey of housing service providers in the state, 14% of respondents said that housing discrimination based on sexual orientation occurred frequently in their communities.”
Kathy Griesmyer, policy director for the ACLU of Idaho, said laws such as the one Meridian is considering end up protecting more than just LGBTQ people, that the wider population also benefits. She said businesses look for potential sites where their employees “can participate fully in public life,” and “in a state that has no statewide protections, they look to the cities.”
Meridian has a fast-growing population that recently crested 100,000. An anti-discrimination law there would be “a huge win for the LGBTQ community.”
“This is probably the most exciting thing,” she said.
Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga