BOISE, Idaho — Long before their arrests, activists seeking to add discrimination protections for gays and lesbians to Idaho’s Human Rights Act added lawyers: The 44 people facing misdemeanor trespass charges after Monday’s demonstration inside the Capitol’s Senate chambers have been promised pro-bono help.
As the action began taking shape in November, Boise criminal defense attorney Dan Skinner learned about it from a client on a separate matter. Given that mass arrest seemed likely, Skinner offered to help and began an informal call for additional attorneys. So far, 10 have signed up.
“It’s about the Idaho Human Rights Act, and the fact that it does not protect gays from being fired from their jobs,” Skinner said Tuesday from his office overlooking the Boise River. “We’re coming at this because we want to support equal protection under the law. That’s it. That’s who we are.”
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Skinner anticipates it could take six weeks before those arrested will enter a plea.
Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, a Boise Democrat and Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker, was among those arrested, issued a citation and released.
Enlisting legal help was an important part of planning, something that began three months ago and included eight training sessions on how to protest without provoking an ugly physical confrontation, LeFavour said.
“We just knew we had to be peaceful, silent and respectful – and focused on why we were there,” she said.
Another reason for legal aid: Some eager would-be protesters embroiled in contentious custody disputes or other legal issues were advised to avoid arrest, given it could hurt their existing cases.
On Monday, 74-year-old Lee Taylor wore a T-shirt emblazoned with “Add The Four Words” demanding lawmakers add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Idaho’s existing prohibitions on employment, housing and business-service discrimination.
A day after her arrest, Taylor was defiant, vowing to fight charges punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“I’m pleading innocent,” she said. “They said that’s everybody’s house up there. So it’s mine, too. I can’t be trespassing on my own property.”
Idaho senators blocked for three hours from entering their chambers and the Idaho State Police see it differently.
“I think they alienated people,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, of the demonstrators.
Given that activists have sought unsuccessfully for eight years to convince legislators to change the law, Keough said they would be well-advised now to gather 53,000 voter signatures needed for a ballot initiative, rather than orchestrate confrontations.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, says he’s not “vindictive.” He’s not demanding that demonstrators be punished.
“They wanted a forum to express their feelings and their ideas. That was the only forum they felt they had,” Hill said. “But that did not include keeping senators out of the chamber to do the public’s work.”
He’d be satisfied if charges were dismissed – with this caveat: That protesters don’t stage a repeat action.
“If they get charged with the second or third or fourth misdemeanor, maybe that would be different,” Hill said.
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