Yesterday morning I found myself entering my state’s capitol building for the first time ever. Idaho House Bill 427, which would modify the state’s freedom of religion laws, was being debated at 9:00 in a public hearing. I was late, having first dawdled over leaving the apartment and then having had to roam the downtown streets for some time before finding parking that wasn’t metered or limited access residential. As I stepped out of my car into the cold and the snow (really, why is it that “nice” women’s clothing is made out of such thin fabric?) and looked at my watch, I thought about skipping out and finding a coffee shop instead. But I didn’t.
A lot has been happening in the LGBT rights realm this week, at least in Idaho. A few days ago, two people I know were among the 40+ arrested during a peaceful protest against LGBT rights discrimination at the capitol building. (A former state senator was one of the protest’s organizers, and was also arrested.) This event came on the heels of two big disappointments, the first being the legislature’s refusal for the eighth year in a row to discuss the Add the Words proposal, which would add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s Human Rights Act. As of right now, several cities have laws protecting LGBT folks from things like housing and employment discrimination, but our state provides no such protection. Living in Boise, a fairly liberal city with anti-discrimination laws in place, I don’t feel like my family is threatened because of my husband’s transgenderism. But that doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be addressed.
The second recent disappointment might as well be called a slap in the face for everybody’s civil rights. Not only has the state legislature refused to discuss Add the Words, two new pieces of legislation have been put forward which would effectively sanction discriminatory treatment on the basis of religious freedom. House Bill 426, spelled out here, is the most blatantly “we-don’t-serve-your-kind-here” offensive of the two. In addition to protecting business owners who refuse to provide services to people (based on sincerely held religious beliefs), it protects employers who refuse to hire a person based on religious beliefs. 426 would also effectively nullify individual city ordinances against discrimination.
The other bill, House Bill 427, was introduced by the same legislator who introduced HB 426, and is an expansion to the state’s freedom of religion laws. This was the bill that was being discussed yesterday morning at the capitol. The wording of 427 is a little more obtuse, but the implications as I understand them (with, I admit, the assistance of some talking points I found online) are that private individuals could use their religion against other private individuals or businesses, and flood the courts with a lot of really questionable, expensive, and time-consuming lawsuits.
As shaky as my understanding of HB 427 was, I wanted to at least show up at the hearing. Wishing J was with me and not out of town, and knowing that the people from the transgender support group we attend would either be stuck at work or sitting already in the east wing hearing room, I stepped into the big, domed building on my own and navigated my way through the wood and marble hallways.
The hearing room,when I found it, was closed, and all I could see through the windows on the entrance doors was a crowd of press people and cameras. There were lots of people milling around the hallway, though. I would later read that over 500 showed up that morning for the hearing. I listened as a security guard directed a woman in an orange coat to an overflow room a short distance away. I trailed the orange coat to the room, where a collection of people sat in chairs and listened to the piped-in audio. I found a seat in the back row. Only then, seated, inconspicuous, and in the right place, did I relax a little.
In the hour I stayed at the hearing, at least a dozen people testified in front of the legislature, and the list of people wanting to speak was over twenty pages long. In that hour, only two people spoke up in favor of the bill. Those speaking against it included individual citizens, a person connected with the local business bureau, and several representatives of area religious groups. A few people mentioned “Add the Words” and were chastised for bringing up a subject that was “not what the hearing was about,” but plenty of the speakers said they wished the state would extend anti-discrimination protections to all people. In a way, Add the Words was finally getting a hearing. At the very least, it was getting some attention and publicity.
As I sat in the overflow room, I knew I could be listening to the same discussion at home on my computer, but it was interesting to be on site with so many other people who were there for the same thing. After many of the speeches people in the overflow room clapped. One really memorable testimony was from a transgender ftm (female to male) twenty-something who talked about getting beaten up in a bathroom and hassled on the streets. He said he was worried about the modifications in the bill because it might mean people could refuse him services, such as medical care. One of the House representatives asked whether he thought it would be better for people to offer care willingly, or be forced to offer care… The implication being that people would do a better job if they weren’t being forced to do it. Almost everybody in the overflow room responded to that with a big, “WHAT??!”**
The testimonies continued, but eventually I put my coat back on and stepped out. In the hallway I put my name on the hearing sign-in sheet and checked the box next to the word “Con.” Then I went home and signed a petition that was being passed around to encourage our state legislature to “Add the Words.” Yesterday the petition was hovering around 3000 signatures. This morning it has nearly 6000.
And that is all, at least for the moment. My participation in government. It feels a little weak, quite honestly, but at least I don’t feel like I’m ignoring the issues. And even though I disagree with much of my state’s politics (just ask me my opinion about state takeover of federal lands), I am glad to live in Boise, where the capitol and all its (questionable) workings are so close by.
**To be fair, this representative did refer to the speaker in his preferred gender, and I think — hope — that the representative was not specifically trying to imply that he thought people should be able to refuse medical aid to others on the basis of religious belief. But as somebody sitting and listening to him talk, it sure came across that way.