ISLAND OF ACCEPTANCE Sandpoint Is Only Idaho City to Ban Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity

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Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President Kate McAlister wasn't expecting it when a woman in her 60s walked up to her at a community event, hugged her and started crying. "She said, 'I want you to know that because of what you did, for the first time in all our lives I can take my partner to a Christmas party without fear of being fired,'" McAlister recalled.

This was after McAlister helped push through a citywide ordinance in Sandpoint barring discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Idaho, it's still legal to fire someone because they're gay, or to evict them from their home or deny them service in a restaurant. But it's no longer legal within the city limits of Sandpoint.

"When it passed, there was a round of applause from the audience," said Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie, who added that she was surprised to learn that Sandpoint was the first Idaho city to enact such a law. Pocatello is now drafting a similar ordinance that its City Council could vote on this fall, and Boise is looking into an ordinance.

"If tiny little Sandpoint can do this, anybody can do it," McAlister said. "I'm not sure what's stopping us."

MORMON CHURCH BACKED ORDINANCES IN UTAH

Idaho appears to be in the early stages of a process that's already happened in neighboring states. In Oregon, a dozen cities and counties had passed local nondiscrimination ordinances regarding sexual orientation before a statewide nondiscrimination law was enacted in 2007. In Washington, local laws also were passed in a dozen cities and counties before a statewide law passed in 2006.

Spokane's local ordinance passed in 1999; Seattle's passed in the 1970s.

In Utah, 15 cities and counties have now enacted nondiscrimination ordinances for sexual orientation, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which did so with the strong support of the Mormon church, the state's dominant religious organization.

But Utah hasn't yet passed a state law, despite repeated attempts in the Legislature. And in Washington, the process was a long one: Abill was introduced every year for 29 years before it finally passed.

Doug Honig of the Washington ACLU said local ordinances can help pave the way for statewide nondiscrimination laws. "Certainly it builds momentum,"Honig said. "It gives parts of the state experience in having laws like that, and showing the rest of the state that these laws can work and be effective. It also builds a comfort level among legislators when you've had laws like this at local jurisdictions."

Jeana Frazzini, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, which pushed for that state's law, said: "Most Americans don't realize that in many places it is still legal to be fired, denied housing or thrown out of a business for being gay. While a statewide,or even a nationwide,policy would be great, passing local ordinances provides the opportunity to build grass-roots support and educate the public. It lays important groundwork with both the public and policymakers across a state."

Idaho lawmakers have rejected legislation each year for the past six years to add the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the state's Human Rights Act, which now bans discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age or disability. In many of those years, including this year, lawmakers refused to even allow the bill to be introduced.

Advocates were stunned at the party-line vote against introducing the bill this year, after a statewide outpouring of support for it that included well-attended rallies, including one that drew more than a thousand people to the state Capitol.

Five Idaho cities, including Boise, Moscow and Caldwell, already have personnel policies for their city employees prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. But those policies don't affect discrimination by other employers in the cities, or in housing or public accommodations, like restaurants and hotels. …