Writings and observations

Motivation

In 1982, Idaho’s voters repealed an old – original – section of the state constitution which had gone unobserved for decades but remained there as a testiment to bigotry of another age: The provision which, in essence, sought to deny Idaho Mormons their rights as citizens, including the right to vote.

The repealer passed easily. But more than a third of the votes were cast against the repeal; that was, simply, the anti-Mormon vote, the people who thought so little of Mormons that they would just as soon they all moved away. We’ve wondered, over the years, how Idaho’s Mormons felt seeing those 100,113 votes, representing people who just didn’t want them around here. That was, after all, their real meaning.

The same kind of thing will happen this year, as Idaho voters act on another constitutional amendment, one approved this morning by the Idaho Senate, to ban marriage in Idaho by same-sex couples.

The measure, House Joint Resolution 2, is simple; its one-sentence operative text is, “A marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.” The language is sweeping, not narrow. That makes it different from gay marriage measures adopted in a number of other states, such as Oregon, which leave open the possibility of civil unions or other devices which would all9ow gay couples to receive some of the marriage-related legal rights heterosexual couples can obtain.

There is another difference. In Oregon, the state’s law and its constitution both had been interpreted as allowing for marriage by gay couples, to the point that marriage licenses were actually issued. (In some other states, the question had been raised though not strongly advanced.) In Oregon, in other words, whatever one’s view on the matter, gay marriage was firmly placed on the political table, a subject fully ripe for address by the voters at the constitutional level. In Idaho, none of that is true. Nothing in the Idaho Constitution credibly opens the door to same-sex marriage, and state law expressly forbids it. Unless one wants to change the law by permitting same-sex marriage (imagine that happening in Idaho anytime soon! but no one has), the subject is settled law.

And yet, session after session, it has returned to the Idaho Legislature, each time with growing force. The first time, in 2004, it passed the House but was stopped by a single senator who happened to chair a key committee, Sheila Sorensen. (She will now be hearing a lot more about that as her congressional campaign progresses this spring.) In the 2005 session it got to the Senate floor but was stopped there by a group of Republicans – John Andreason, Charles Coiner, Dick Compton, Tom Gannon, John Goedde, Brad Little, Gary Schroeder, Joe Stegner – joining all but one of the chamber’s few Democrats.

This year, after House passage, it returned again, but this time Andreason, Goedde, Compton, Gannon and Little changed their votes, and put the measure on the ballot. [NOTE: Edited here to correct a statement that the measure hadn’t yet cleared the House; it did so on February 6, on a 53-17 vote.]

Why the five changed their votes is a worthy question, since neither the measure nor the circumstances around it have changed significantly from a year ago. (The language in the measure did change a bit, but not so as to affect its meaning.) A year ago, the Republican critics of the measure were clear why they opposed it. Andreason was quoted as saying, “Here we are on the 24th day of the legislative session, and what is the longest debate we’ve had in this session so far? Is it about education? Is it about public transportation? No. It’s SJR 101. And I think that’s a small example of what we’re going to see in the next election if this is on the ballot.” Little suggested, “It’s the old rule of unintended consequences. Are we going to be back here next year creating a whole new bureaucracy to address a problem that doesn’t exist today?” And 2004 election results suggest that opposition to the amendment is unlikely to cost a senator his or her seat.

The switching senators were less clear on why they reversed course, and as is our practice, we won’t try to read minds here. That said, the only apparent reason why putting it on the ballot now would make more sense than it would have a year ago is that 2006 is shaping up as a relatively Democratic year, and a gay-marriage amendment would press the hot button which sending religious conservatives across the state to the polls. In a heavily Republican legislature, that would be reason enough.

But as Little noted a year ago, there are always other consequences. One of them is the message sent by – probably – hundreds of thousands of Idaho voters, likely a strong majority, to the state’s gay population. That message, echoing the 1982 message which only a minority sent to Mormons, will be: “We’d really just as soon that your kind weren’t here.” The social atmospheric change in Idaho over the next year and beyond may be no more subtle than that.

Share on Facebook