BOISE, Idaho — Gay rights activists were arrested Thursday and jailed after refusing to voluntarily lift an hours-long Senate blockade aimed at pressuring lawmakers into backing anti-discrimination protections.
In all, there were 32 arrests throughout the day, said Idaho State Police spokeswoman Teresa Baker, including seven around noon. Six people were cited for trespassing and another for misdemeanor battery.
Then, another 25 people were cited for misdemeanor trespassing after 4 p.m. after posting themselves outside Senate chambers for more than six hours, then declining to disperse when asked by law enforcement. A law enforcement bus transported those 25 protesters to Ada County Jail in Boise.
“We just needed to make sure that the public has access to the Capitol,” Baker said. “That wasn’t occurring today.”
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Thursday’s action follows a similar demonstration Feb. 3 when 44 protesters were arrested and charged with misdemeanor trespassing.
Several of those demonstrators were arrested again Thursday.
So far, however, GOP lawmakers have declined to hold a hearing on adding add four words — sexual orientation and gender identity — to the Idaho Human Rights Act that currently bans workplace and housing discrimination based on race, gender or religion.
Former State Sen. Nicole LeFavour of Boise, a Democrat who was Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker until she resigned in 2012, said Republicans’ refusal to consider her group’s grievances amounts to tacit approval of violence she says is being committed against gay people across the state.
“Senators have remained silent, while people have been beaten in alleyways,” said LeFavour, among the first to be arrested Thursday.
LeFavour, who wasn’t among those transported to jail by bus, was briefly detained and cited for attempting to block a back entrance to the Senate from being used by lawmakers and other members of the public seeking to leave the chambers about noon.
“I went down the elevator,” Sen. Roy Lacey, D-Pocatello said, after exiting the chamber. “They told me the stairs were blocked.”
For most of the day, lawmakers, reporters and other members of the public were barred from entering the Senate. Attempts to pass were blocked by demonstrators who linked arms and refused to move.
Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he respects protesters’ right to assemble, but not if they interrupt Capitol business.
Hill said lawmakers from both parties have been meeting over possible ways address demonstrators’ concerns, but worries pressing the issue, including by being arrested, may alienate potential allies and destroy any fragile agreement that might be reached.
“We’re trying to come up with ways to protect gay rights and religious freedoms,” Hill said. “If this is forced into a hearing and a vote, you’ll lock some lawmakers into a vote before a solution can be found.”
Much like the Feb. 3 protest, Thursday’s demonstrators wore black-and-white “Add the 4 Words Idaho” T-shirts and covered their mouths with their hands, a symbolic gesture intended to show they’ve been silenced after eight years of seeking discrimination protections.
Thursday morning’s misdemeanor battery citation stemmed from a complaint filed by Senate Sergeant at Arms Sarah Jane McDonald.
McDonald said a male protester pushed through her arms as demonstrators barreled down one of the Senate’s interior stairs normally reserved for lawmakers and staff, trying to reach a door to let other protesters inside the chambers.
“I wasn’t hurt, I wasn’t injured — just pushed aside,” McDonald told The Associated Press.
The name of the man cited wasn’t released by the Idaho State Police.
Just before Thursday’s late-afternoon arrests, Idaho Department of Administration director Teresa Luna, accompanied by Idaho State Police Major Steve Richardson, informed protesters their refusal to vacate the third and fourth Senate entrances was creating a potential safety and fire hazard.
“This is your last opportunity,” Richardson told them, before beginning the arrests.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, isn’t surprised the Capitol has become the scene of serial protests.
Already this session, lawmakers have forbidden same-sex couples married legally in other states from filing their Idaho taxes jointly. A Republican House member sought to bolster religious people’s rights to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers, though that bill has stalled.
And outside of the Capitol, four couples are suing Idaho in federal court, seeking to overturn the state’s 2006 same-sex marriage ban.
“All of this conversation has been percolating for quite a while,” Stennett said.