BOISE, Idaho — In what has rapidly become a heated and expensive public battle, the conservative leadership of Idaho’s Republican-controlled government has taken a firm stand against the expansion of LGBT civil rights in the state.
In moves that have outraged many gay rights activists and supporters — both in and outside the state — the Idaho government has spent more than half a million dollars of taxpayer money to defend its ban on same-sex marriage in federal courts and could spend even more.
Lawmakers have also blocked legislation that would protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, sparking condemnation from LGBT rights groups.
Same-sex couples in Idaho could legally marry starting October 2014, after a federal judge struck down the state’s 2006 voter-approved constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and domestic legal unions — one of the strictest such laws in the country.
“I was actually at the courthouse the day people were starting to be able to get married,” said Gary Simpson, who founded OutBoise, the city’s first LGBT magazine. “There was a lot of celebration. People were happy. They were celebrating.”
The celebration was short lived after the state requested a stay on the marriages, which was granted. Near the end of 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the original ruling, allowing marriage licenses to be given to same-sex couples.
By the end of 2014 same-sex couples were getting married in Idaho despite the fact that taxpayers paid for the defense of their state’s ban on such marriages.
In addition to the $150,000 in legal and printing fees incurred by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s office — which included a private attorney hired to defend the state ban — a federal judge also ordered the state to pay more than $400,000 to the legal team representing the four same-sex couples who initially sued the state for marriage rights.
“It’s crazy that we would spend so much time fighting against something that 63 percent of the country is in support of,” Simpson said, referring to a 2015 CNN poll on nationwide views of same-sex marriage.
The legal team that brought the suit has requested an additional $300,000 from the state to cover court and legal costs.
The costs could continue to grow, as the state has appealed the ruling. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Otter filed separate appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, both challenging the same ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his State of the State address in January, Otter — who was elected to a third term last fall — continued to firmly position himself in opposition to the federal courts, saying, “There is neither rhyme nor reason to how the federal government does or does not do its job.” He added, “It’s unfortunate that so many of our differences with the national government wind up in court.”
He reaffirmed his office’s active stance against the ruling, declaring that the same-sex marriage ban represents "both the intentions and the values of our citizens.” He said, "I will continue to do all I can to uphold my oath and defend our Idaho Constitution.”
With a heavy presence from the Mormon church, Idaho is one of the most conservative states in the country, according to Gallup polling, and has a Republican-controlled government. A 2014 Public Policy poll found that nearly 60 percent of Idahoans are opposed to same-sex marriage.
‘It’s crazy that we would spend so much time fighting against something that 63 percent of the country is in support of.’
founder, Boise’s first LGBT magazine
Republican legislators in Idaho have blocked legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
“Idaho is a right-to-work state, but it’s a state where you can still be fired for being gay,” Simpson said. “We still have a long way to go before things are accepted for our community here.”
The legislation is commonly called Add the Words, in reference to demands to add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the state's Human Rights Act. The campaign has used civil disobedience to make discrimination against LGBT individuals a public issue, said activist and former state legislator Nicole LeFavour.
“When I was elected in 2004 to the legislature, a lot of people in there didn’t think they had ever met a gay person before,” said LeFavour, who was Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker. “The environment is so split in terms of rural and urban, in terms of just local dynamics that create some really, really toxic environments for gay people [in Idaho] — and especially young gay people.”
Activists started organizing in 2012 and by 2013 were protesting in and around the Idaho Capitol. In February 2014, 44 protesters — including LeFavour — were arrested for blocking the entrance to Idaho’s Senate. More than 100 Add the Words protesters were arrested last year. On March 2 of this year, 23 Add the Words protesters — again including LeFavour — were arrested for disrupting legislative business.
After nearly 20 hours of emotional testimony, all 13 Republicans on the State Affairs Committee in Idaho’s House voted to block the bill after it was introduced earlier this year. The committee’s four Democrats all voted in favor of the bill.
The Idaho Statesman reported that Republican lawmakers who voted against the bill said the bill's supporters had legitimate concerns, suggesting there may be room for a compromise.
‘When I was elected in 2004 to the legislature, a lot of people in there didn’t think they had ever met a gay person before. The environment is so split in terms of rural and urban, in terms of just local dynamics that create some really, really toxic environments for gay people.’
Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker
“Do not despair,” state Rep. Ken Andrus told Add the Words supporters. “Your concerns are legitimate, very legitimate, and people in Idaho and in the legislature have heard you and are hearing you.”
“We have to be very careful how we make those rules, and today my feeling is that this is not the rule that addresses the whole picture,” he added.
Opponents of the bill say the legislation would force individuals such as bakers, photographers or T-shirt makers to contradict their religious values in order to serve same-sex couples — a question that has influenced legal battles all over the country.
But LeFavour said a compromise might be near. A proposed revision of the bill would specifically grant individuals who sell such customizable products the right to refuse service on the basis of religious or free speech grounds.
“I grew up in [conservative] rural Custer County,” she said before mentioning other LGBT individuals she has met from other rural areas in Idaho. “The vast majority of them have left to go find safe places to work and live.”
LeFavour emphasized that homophobia is especially harmful to LGBT youths and the transgender community.
She added, “No one on the state level is saying that those environments are unacceptable, and that’s why the legislation is so important.”