Proponents of a non-discrimination ordinance in Idaho Falls are as determined as ever to get their city leaders to eventually approve and adopt an ordinance that protects LGBTQ residents in all public sectors, propelled by the overwhelming support of the community’s first gay pride festival in September.
The eastern Idaho town, a largely conservative community of 57,000-plus with a heavy Mormon population, became on September 13 the seventh city in Idaho to adopt an ordinance offering citywide protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Unlike Sandpoint, Boise, Ketchum, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene, and Pocatello, though, Idaho Falls’ ordinance excludes public accommodations from the public sector areas of protection from discrimination, opting for housing and employment only. Exceptions were also included for religious-based groups, some property owners, and businesses with fewer than five employees.
“The ordinance is really a non-discrimination ordinance in name only and actually enshrines discrimination within it,” said Cherie Stevens, an Idaho Falls resident and co-chair with her husband Wayne of the Eastern Idaho PFLAG chapter. The Stevens are longtime advocates for LGBTQ equality, proud parents of a gay son, and have been a part of Eastern Idaho PFLAG for 18 years.
“Wayne and I were extremely disappointed,” Stevens lamented. “I think there is a vast misunderstanding about what freedom of religion really entails and that was the overriding reason that a bad ordinance was passed. I believe the city council members who supported it were trying to balance equality for vulnerable citizens against an influential religious majority in the community.”
Dan Henry, an Idaho Falls resident and one of the ordinance’s primary community proponents, agreed with Stevens, adding that election-year politics probably contributed to the final vote, a 3-to-3 tie with Mayor Jared Fuhriman voting to leave out public accommodations. Earlier in the summer, the council had unanimously agreed on the wording of a draft ordinance that did include public accommodations.
“I think that the council members who eventually failed to support a public accommodations section were scared by their conservative and religious base, and backed away from something that they had voted for just a few weeks before,” Henry said.
Jess McCafferty, LGBT Equality Fellow for the ACLU of Idaho, said the partial protections coverage of the Idaho Falls ordinance could produce situations that are confusing.
“A business owner will be forced to comply with the hiring/firing practices,” she said, “but could still turn someone away who they perceived as having a sexual orientation that is not desirable for their business.”
McCafferty said a couple of the council members who voted to exclude public accommodations told her they did so because they felt that section of the ordinance was “too ambiguous and left too much room for other rights to be infringed on.” The same council members pledged to take up the ordinance again at some point, but the reality of that happening during election season is uncertain, she said.
“The ACLU believes that LGBT equality does not take away other citizens’ freedoms,” McCafferty said. “We would be very happy with an ordinance with public places protected, as well as fewer exemptions, but it is up to Idaho Falls to decide what is best for their city.”
While ordinance supporters left the September council meeting in the wee hours of a Friday morning discouraged and uncertain about the future, feelings turned joyful and hopeful the very next day during the city’s first gay pride festival in Memorial Park, co-sponsored by Pride Foundation. Nearly 800 people turned out to march in solidarity in a parade around the park on a gloriously warm late summer day, no protesters or hecklers in sight.
“I feel that our feelings about Idaho Falls Pride have trumped our discouragement from the vote,” said Sierra Gormsen, an openly transgender Idaho Falls resident and vocal supporter of the ordinance who was also part of the Idaho Falls Pride planning committee. “It has really shown how much Idaho Falls has grown in its humanity and how the city is really leaning. The phrase ‘It gets better’ really proved itself that weekend, and I am so grateful I got to witness it.”
Longtime Idaho Falls resident Theron McGriff, an out gay man and founding member of Idaho Falls-based HIV/AIDS services support and diversity advocacy organization Breaking Boundaries, said he’d left the council ordinance meeting incredibly disappointed by the council and citizens who’d testified against the ordinance, but felt rejuvenated after Idaho Falls Pride.
“I take away what a need this community had for a pride organization,” he said. “The youth just amazed me. They came in masses just looking for a place they could be themselves and be accepted for the awesome people they are. I have never felt older looking at that crowd and could not be happier.”
“It was a very good thing that Idaho Falls Pride followed so quickly after the ordinance vote,” Stevens said. “It allowed the community the opportunity to both celebrate and mourn in a very positive way. The outpouring of love, joy, and support channeled the grief and discouragement over the vote into celebration and resolve.”
Henry, also a co-organizer of Idaho Falls Pride, said that resolve has already led to plans for another pride event in September 2014, and renewed community determination to push city leaders to amend the ordinance.
“We now have an ordinance that can—and will—be fixed in the next city council,” he said. “Our group here is dedicated to getting a more supportive city council in place in November. This year’s pride festival really did renew everyone’s energy and enthusiasm. I was in tears of joy several times. We never hoped for such a success.”
“I’m very happy that Idaho Falls gets to continue the discussion of equal rights in their city,” McCafferty remarked. “I’m taking away inspiration, tenacity, and community. If you ever wondered where your second family is, it’s probably in Idaho Falls—and they will teach you great values.”
Steve Martin is Pride Foundation’s Regional Development Organizer in Idaho. Email Steve.