Idaho House panel keeps religious freedom bill alive

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho’s Capitol on Wednesday was again the focus of frustration among gay rights activists as lawmakers kept alive a bill that Republican religious conservatives argue is necessary to protect businesses from being forced to serve customers whose lifestyles offend their faith traditions.

The House State Affairs Committee’s 11-5 vote to send the bill to the floor came two days after 44 gay rights activists were arrested for barring entry to the state Senate. More than 500 people, nearly all foes of the bill, showed up.

Dozens who testified during the 3 1/2 hour hearing said they wanted it killed on the grounds that it enshrines discrimination in Idaho law.

However, Republican lawmakers on the panel said they favored the bill to expand an existing 14-year-old Idaho law, making it tougher to sue people who cite their religious faith for not serving, among others, gay and lesbian customers.

“If a person is being burdened in their free exercise of religion… they should have the ability to raise that as a defense,” said Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise and the sponsor.

Luker contends that his bill is necessary because existing Idaho law only helps protect religious people against lawsuits or claims filed by the government — not if they’re sued by individuals. He cited a lawsuit in New Mexico, where a lesbian couple sued a photographer after she refused to take pictures at their wedding, as an example of what could come to Idaho, if his bill isn’t passed.

All 11 lawmakers behind Luker’s bill were from the majority GOP.

Two Republicans, Reps. Kelly Packer of McCammon and Eric Anderson of Priest Lake, joined three Democrats against the bill.

After Monday’s three-hour Senate blockade — to protest Republicans’ refusal to add protections for gays to the Idaho Human Rights Act — emotions ran high Wednesday, too.

The crowd was so large, security guards turned many people away from the committee room. Some who testified said the bill’s substance recalled an era when many Americans associated Idaho with the Aryan Nations racist compound in Idaho.

“This bill is not only offensive, it is unnecessary,” said Linda Crozier of Boise. “This bill would essentially allow citizens and businesses to discriminate against anyone on the basis of religious freedom.”

Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan feared it could undo strides that communities like hers, along with Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello, Sandpoint, Moscow, Idaho Falls and Ketchum, have made extending local employment and housing protections to gays and lesbians, in the absence of statewide prohibitions.

And Brian Thom, the Episcopal Church’s bishop for Idaho, said Luker’s bill confuses protecting religious freedom with protecting discrimination. “I don’t think that’s true religious freedom,” he said. “That’s religious abuse.”

New Mexico hasn’t been the only venue for legal fights. In Oregon, a pending case involves a suburban Portland bakery that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple.

One Republican on the Idaho committee, Rep. Ken Andrus from Lava Hot Springs, questioned why gays would want to be served by an anti-gay baker, anyway.

“Do you think the cake would be as good if he did it against his will, rather than if he did it of his own free will?” Andrus wondered aloud to Monica Hopkins, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho.

“It’s not just the cake bakers,” Hopkins said, contending that Luker’s bill would also protect Christian Identity adherents who may oppose mixed-race couples. “This is the Pandora’s box.”

Only two people, both from the conservative Christian Cornerstone Family Council of Meridian, testified in favor.

One, Barry Peters, downplayed suggestions Luker’s measure would automatically lead to widespread abuse by religions with unorthodox beliefs.

“Where are the cases of child abuse in the name of religious liberty? Where are the cases of spousal abuse in the name of religious liberty?” Peters said. “The answer is… there have been none.”

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