Michelle Ziel-Dingman

Michelle Ziel-Dingman

Idaho Falls has tightened its ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

After an hour-long discussion, the City Council voted unanimously Thursday night to ban discrimination in public accommodations, meaning someone cannot, for example, refuse to serve someone in a restaurant or store because they are gay or transgender. The previous ordinance, which was passed in 2013 amid much more controversy than accompanied Thursday's action, had banned discrimination in housing and employment but didn't cover public accommodations.

“I strongly believe that equal rights should be assured to everybody,” said City Councilman Jim Freeman. “Discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender or anything else is a denial of basic human rights. This isn’t granting special treatment to anyone. It’s granting the same rights that everyone holds.”

Idaho Falls is one of about 16 municipalities in Idaho that have adopted an anti-discrimination ordinance banning some or all private businesses from discriminating against gay or transgender people. The state’s anti-discrimination law does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity. Advocates for statewide protections have been pushing such legislation for about a decade, but the farthest it has ever gotten was a committee hearing in 2015 where it was voted down on a party-line vote. 

The state Legislature at least partially inspired the ordinance with two bills it passed this year. One, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Ehardt, a Republican who represents Idaho Falls, bars transgender girls and women from playing on female high school and college sports. Another bars transgender people from changing their sex on their birth certificate to match their gender identity. Both are being challenged in court. Their opponents included several major employers, including Idaho National Laboratory locally.

Councilwoman Michelle Ziel-Dingman, who sponsored the change to the ordinance, said the topic hadn’t been on her agenda until she was contacted by numerous constituents about those two bills.

“This is a constituent-led modification on my part,” she said.

The City Council has suspended public comment at its meetings due to coronavirus concerns, and Thursday’s meeting was held via video conference call. While hundreds of people have written to the City Council to express their views on the ordinance, this means there was no opportunity for people to testify to the Council about the change.

In their comments before the vote, several councilmembers highlighted the numerous ways the Council solicited comment, including putting out a news release and soliciting feedback on social media, and addressed criticisms they have heard. For example, Mayor Rebecca Casper said she has heard from some people who said there should have been a vote of the general public.

“We don’t have a direct democracy,” Casper said. “We have an elected body that is to form policy.”

Freeman said he had received about 300 emails about the proposal, roughly evenly split between supporters and opponents of the change. He said his vote either way would likely displease about half of his constituents.

“I’m going to vote how my conscience feels,” he said.

Councilman John Radford said the Council should have taken public testimony.

“What’s the danger in listening to people and allowing (them) the opportunity to express themselves in public?” he said.

Violations of the ordinance are punishable by a fine. A second violation is a misdemeanor, although unlike most misdemeanors a fine is the only possible punishment and someone couldn't be arrested for violating it; the Council amended the ordinance Thursday night to remove the possibility of jail time for violations. The ordinance contains some language regarding religious freedom, including exempting religious schools.

"This does not change any constitutional rights established by the federal or state government," said Councilman Jim Francis. "We don't have the power to do that, and we're not trying to do that."

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.