Printed on: July 10, 2013

Bias behind bars

Anti-discrimination ordinance would put

By RUTH BROWN
rbrown@postregister.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in a four-part series examining the draft Idaho Falls anti-discrimination ordinance.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in the Idaho Human Rights Act.

As a result, there is no state law protecting those who are fired from their job or denied a place to rent.

That soon could change in Idaho Falls if the City Council adopts a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance.

Idaho Falls' draft ordinance, similar to those passed by other Idaho cities, could land violators behind bars. As written, a violation of the potential ordinance could result in a misdemeanor conviction. Such a conviction would be punishable by up to six months in jail and a $500 fine.

Idaho Falls would become the seventh city in the state to pass an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gay and lesbian residents. Boise, Sandpoint, Ketchum, Moscow, Pocatello and Coeur d'Alene already have similar ordinances in place.

Boise Police Chief Michael Masterson said his city's ordinance is a necessity.

"It defines what the community standard is for how we treat a specific population," Masterson said. "It spurs discussion around the dinner table about how we treat each other in society."

Masterson was a proponent of the ordinance.

"I don't want (gay residents) not trusting the police enough to come forward," Masterson said. "If somebody comes forward and their employer finds out and wants to fire them -- at least they have protection now."

There haven't been any reported violations since his city's ordinance went into effect Jan. 1, he said. But Masterson doesn't believe a law's effectiveness should be measured by the number of complaints.

Ketchum Police Chief Steve Harkins said he was in favor of the ordinance passing in his city.

"I don't think people should be discriminated against by race or gender identity," Harkins said. "I was in support of the ordinance because I think (discrimination) is an issue everywhere."

The department has not received any reports of violations of the new law since it took effect April 15.

Idaho Falls Police Chief Mark McBride attended the June 13 City Council work session on the ordinance and heard some residents' stories of being discriminated against.

"Listening to their testimony, there seems to be (discrimination) that goes on that I am not aware of," McBride said.

While making a point of explaining he doesn't create the laws, McBride said he'll work to carry out the council's wishes should the ordinance pass.

How it would work

Under the Idaho Falls draft ordinance, City Attorney Randy Fife said, the process would start with a resident filing a complaint with police, who would investigate the allegation and submit a report to the Bonneville County Prosecutor's Office.

Should the prosecutor's office decide a misdemeanor charge is justified, it would submit the case to the city attorney's office. The city attorney would work to facilitate mediation between the two parties involved.

If the case is mediated successfully, criminal charges could be dismissed.

If there is refusal to mediate, then it would stay with the prosecutor's office and the defendant would have the opportunity to stand trial before a jury, just like any other misdemeanor crime, Fife said.

Sandpoint City Attorney Scot Campbell said the intent of mediation before filing a criminal charge is to educate people about discrimination rather than fine or jail them.

Sandpoint was the first in Idaho to draft an anti-discrimination ordinance based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Since its ordinance was enacted Dec. 21, 2011, the city has received one complaint, Campbell said. A person reported employment discrimination but the allegation couldn't be verified, so the complaint was dismissed.

"We've had no real opposition to (the new ordinance)," Campbell said. "Only support."

Adding protections

Idaho Falls already has an anti-discrimination ordinance in place for race, color, sex, age, nationality, familial status, veteran status and/or disability.

Bonneville County Prosecutor Bruce Pickett said the court system has no record of anyone ever being charged with violating the existing ordinance.

The draft ordinance would add protections for sexual orientation and gender expression/identity.

Adding those protections, Pickett said, is something for the City Council to consider.

"For us, in my position as prosecutor, it's our job to enforce laws that are passed -- not to make them or create them," he said.

Draft ordinance

Under the draft version of the proposed Idaho Falls anti-discrimination ordinance:

It is illegal to refuse to hire or fire a person because of gender identity or sexual orientation.

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a person with respect to pay because of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Labor organizations cannot exclude or expel a person from its membership because he or she is gay or lesbian.

Landlords cannot refuse to sell or rent a home because a person is gay or lesbian.

The proposed ordinance does not create any special rights or privileges for gays and lesbians that would not be available to all of the city's residents because every person has a sexual orientation and gender identity.

Any violation of the ordinance would result in a misdemeanor.