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Protests And Arrests, But Is Idaho Any Closer To Gay Rights Law?

This winter, protests hit the Idaho Capitol at a level rarely seen in Boise. Gay rights activists blocked entrances and were marched away in handcuffs.

They want Idaho's Republican-controlled legislature to pass an anti-discrimination law similar to those in Oregon and Washington. It would make it illegal for employers, landlords and most businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But lawmakers plan to wrap up the session this Friday without ever printing the bill.

Pressure through civil disobedience

This session, police were called to the Idaho capitol almost weekly to remove protesters blocking doors or staging late-night sit-ins. In the first demonstration, 44 people were arrested. It was a departure from previous tactics.

Protesters hope to pressure Republican lawmakers into ending eight straight years of declining to consider the anti-discrimination bill for gays, lesbians and trans people.

“I can only imagine how frustrated the proponents feel at this point,” says Republican Scott Bedke, the speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives.

“But at the same time, I don't think Idahoans are ready to create a separate class of citizen, or create another class of citizen.”

What's more, the acts of civil disobedience have drawn widespread criticism from Republican lawmakers and Republican Gov. Butch Otter. Bedke says the disruption to legislative business and the estimated thousands of dollars it takes to call in Idaho state police officers may have backfired on the proponents.

“I think it just polarizes," says Bedke. "I think it just makes it easy for people to say, 'Not this year.'”

"Add the Words"

A few minutes before closing time at Idaho's capitol building, the sounds of closing office doors echo through the rotunda. But the four people who have been standing with a hand symbolically over their mouth aren't moving.

“We keep our hand over our mouth as long as we can. Until they cuff us,” whispers Nicole LeFavour. She used to be a state senator here and was the first -- and so far only -- openly gay lawmaker in Idaho.

Now LeFavour is the driving force behind the “Add the Words” protests. It’s named for the goal to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho's anti-discrimination law.

“I really do feel like I tried everything," says LeFavour. "I think we finally realized ... this was was all we had left. Just to get them to look at us, to hear us.”

LeFavour has lost count of how many times she's been arrested -- at least five times. And still there's no progress on the bill. So LeFavour is prepared to get arrested again tonight and charged with another misdemeanor.

About half an hour later, the Idaho State Police show up to tell everyone including me that it’s time to go.

“You need to leave – if you're with the news you need to leave,” says one of the officers.

I go while LeFavour and the other protesters choose to stay. A few minutes later outside, state troopers walk the protesters down the steps in handcuffs and put them into patrol cars.

"We have never gotten a public hearing"

Seven cities in Idaho have passed local gay-rights ordinances. But Idaho is among 29 states that don't have specific language in their state discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation.

Still, not everyone in the Add the Words political action committee is on board with the civil disobedience. But co-chair MistieTolman disputes the notion that it’s set them back.

“In my opinion what it comes down to is simple math," she says. "Zero times anything is zero. And we were at zero. We have never gotten a public hearing. So how can they have hurt a cause that was already at nowhere?”

Tolman argues Idaho’s lawmakers are lagging behind the rest of the country, and their own constituents, on this issue. She cites a 2011 poll commissioned by the ACLU that found 81 percent of Idahoans think it shouldn't be legal to fire someone because they're gay.

In February, former Republican governor Phil Batt wrote an op-ed condemning the “disdain” Idaho has for “people who are different” and urged the legislature to pass the anti-discrimination law.

"Google 'gay rights arrests' right now"

Gary Moncrief, a professor of political science at Boise State University, says if nothing else, the add the words protests along with similar protests in Utah have succeeded in one important area: getting attention.

“If you Google 'gay rights arrests' right now you will find in the top 10 sites or so, the top 10 articles on that -- the four places being mentioned are Zimbabwe, Russia, Idaho and Utah.”

Protests or not, some in the Republican leadership say change will come in Idaho. Sen. Curt McKenzie chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee. McKenzie says Idaho in general has shifted on gay rights along with the rest of the country.

“We're not an island," he says. "Opinions on this issue have changed over time. And I think Idaho's laws will reflect that. It just may take time for that to happen.”

But protesters say they're tired of waiting.

On one brisk morning toward the end of the legislative session, a couple dozen people gathered at Balcony, a gay bar in downtown Boise, just blocks from the capitol. They prepared for another action that could lead to more arrests.

Activists say the legislative session won’t be the end of it. They’re prepared to take the demonstrations to lawmakers’ home districts.