- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho Republican leaders announced a change of course Wednesday and approved the introduction of a bill that would include sexual orientation and gender identity protections in the state’s Human Rights Act.

The House Ways and Means Committee, made up of Republican legislative leadership, voted 6-1 to bring the proposed legislation to a full hearing. The legislation, commonly called the “Add the Words” bill has been denied a public hearing for nine consecutive years.

“This is really a very, simple bill,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, who introduced the measure. “It enhances Idaho’s freedom, it protects against discrimination in education, employment and public accommodation. It simply states that sexual orientation, or gender identity, cannot be used to deny rights and opportunities available to all Idahoans.”

Only House Majority Assistant Leader Brent Crane of Nampa voted against the bill, saying he voted to protect marriage between one man and one woman. The bill does not address same-sex marriage, but Crane says that the two issues are closely connected.

“If you believe, as I do, that traditional marriage holds this society together, this is the first toehold to peel away traditional marriage,” Crane said, adding that he doesn’t see any compromise where an anti-discrimination law could be passed that also protected religious freedom.

Gay rights advocates have long pushed for such legislation, and last year dozens of protesters were arrested after taking part in a series of civil disobedience actions at the Idaho statehouse when lawmakers again refused to hold a hearing on the matter.

“If it takes multiple days, that’s fine,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke. “We want to hear everyone that wants to testify, on both sides. I have full confidence that this will be done in a way that’s befitting the issue and befitting the legislative process.”

However, while getting a full hearing is the furthest the effort has ever gotten in the Statehouse, the legislation faces an uphill battle passing among conservative GOP lawmakers who control both chambers. Republican leaders have promised a full hearing but not its passage.

The Idaho Human Rights Act was created in 1969, banning discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin in housing, public accommodations, education and employment. In the years since, additional protections have been added to Idaho law, including prohibitions on employment discrimination against people over age 40 and prohibitions on employment and housing discrimination against those with disabilities.

Last year, Republican Rep. Lynn Luker pushed for legislation that would have allowed businesses to refuse to provide some services to gay or transgender would-be customers if the business person felt that providing the service would violate his or her religious beliefs. That bill was printed, but it was sent back to the committee after the protests and never became a law.

To date, 19 states have passed anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity protections. Three states have passed laws just protecting against sexual orientation discrimination.

In Idaho, 10 cities have bypassed the state and approved their own legal sexual orientation and gender identity protections. However, the city-led initiatives are not immune to resistance. Most recently, the city of Pocatello narrowly upheld its anti-discrimination law in a repeal effort in the November election.


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