Gay rights advocates, religious freedom supporters speak out on Idaho's 'Add the Words' bill

Bishop Brian Thom stood quietly in front of Idaho lawmakers, hastily collecting his thoughts on how to respond to the question he had just been handed in front of religious freedom supporters and hundreds of gay rights advocates.

"Can you tell me where gay people come from?" asked Democratic Rep. John McCrostie of Boise — currently Idaho's only openly state lawmaker — as the crowded room let out a small laugh.

The House State Affairs Committee was in its fourth hour of listening to testimony on legislation that would create protections for gay and lesbian people in Idaho. The bill has been denied a public hearing for nine consecutive years by the Republican-controlled Statehouse. Yet advocates have refused to be ignored.

"If you are gay, sir, then I believe God made you that way," said Thom, who supports the bill.

The room erupted in applause, causing committee chairman and Republican Rep. Tom Loertscher to bang his gavel and remind the crowd to follow the rules of decorum. However, the more Thom spoke, the more the crowd cheered him on.

It was an emotional moment amid the sobering testimony both sides of the issue presented during Monday's committee meeting. The committee — made up some of the Statehouse's most conservative lawmakers and only a handful of Democrats — was expected to convene Tuesday morning to listen to testimony once more. No set date has been made on when the committee will vote.

The movement to hold the hearing peaked in 2014 after protesters disrupted the Statehouse with a series of civil-disobedience demonstrations — leading to more than 190 arrests throughout the session and forcing the hand of conservative legislative leaders, who conceded the time for a hearing had finally come.

"My son now presents as my daughter, and I can't bear the thought of my precious child being treated unfairly by anyone simply for being herself," said Diane Terhune of Meridian, while testifying in front of the House State Affairs Committee. "For those of you who think (lesbian and gay) individuals don't need to be protected as a group because they choose their lifestyles, let me tell you that no one chooses this life. It is one of hardship."

Terhune and other gay rights supporters not only face opposition among the state's staunchly conservative legislators but also from Idaho's deeply religious population. Some at the hearing testified on Monday that they fear the bill, commonly known as "Add the Words," will infringe on their rights as individuals and business owners.

Sonja Davis of Idaho Falls agreed.

"I believe I should have the freedom to hire the employee who I feel like," Davis said. "What segment of society will be next? Tall people? Short people? Fat people?"

According to the bill, the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" would be included in the state's Human Rights Act, which already bans discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin in situations like housing or employment.

While gay rights advocates celebrated the recent legalization of same-sex marriage not only in Idaho but also across the majority of the nation, they have repeated that the fight is not over until states pass anti-discrimination laws.

"I want to be valued as a human being based on the person that I am, the person that my mother raised me to be," said Julie Stratton of Post Falls. "Please include my wife and me as fully equal citizens of this state and help us to be proud of living here."

Arizona-based United Families International President Laura Bunker countered by citing cases in other states where businesses were sued for declining to serve to same-sex couples getting married.

"In the end these non-discrimination laws are not fair to all. Someone is ultimately discriminated against," Bunker said. "Why would Utah, or Idaho, sorry, want to put that kind of wedge between its citizens?"

Doyle Beck of Idaho Falls said the legislation is an insult to Idahoans.

"I'm somewhat offended that this bill has been introduced and is seriously being debated," Beck said. "It implies that Idahoans are nasty people and that we discriminate against our neighbors unless the government somehow intervenes and comes in to straighten us out. I'm not saying that discrimination doesn't exist, but I am saying that it's very minimal."

Beck added that he felt he had been discriminated while growing up because he had hair down to his shoulders, but he didn't feel the need to sue because of it.

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

Meanwhile in Idaho, 10 cities have bypassed the state and approved their own anti-discrimination laws.