A guest opinion from Rod Gramer of Boise; he is the co-author of the Frank Church biography Fighting the Odds (which has been republished by Ridenbaugh Press).
I drove past a billboard last week that read: “208 Too Great for Hate.”
It was the day after the Idaho House killed a bill that would have created a specialty license plate to fund programs operated by the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights. It was the last hooray for a Legislature that spent more time focused on social engineering than on the problems of real people like property tax relief for seniors and the economically disadvantaged.
“I am not going to throw labels around,” Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, the bill’s sponsor and Idaho’s only African-American legislator, said graciously after the vote. “But I will tell you that there is a problem.”
Earlier the Legislature passed two bills that discriminated against transgender citizens. One banned transgender girls and women from participating in school sports that matched their gender identity. The other banned transgender Idahoans from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates.
Four of Idaho’s largest employers – HP, Micron, Clif Bar and Chobani – wrote a letter to Governor Little urging him to veto the bills. In a letter to legislative leaders, Mark Peters, the director of the Idaho National Laboratory, warned about the “tone of discussion” in the Legislature and how it “negatively impacts the way in which Idaho is perceived outside our borders.”
Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Yet even education was under attack in the House. It took three tries to pass a budget for our colleges and universities because many House members oppose the institutions’ support of diversity and inclusion.
Never mind that the mission of education is to promote diversity of thought, critical thinking, and the understanding of cultures outside one’s life experiences. These are all qualities we need as citizens, employees, and leaders in an increasingly diverse world. Openness to the “other” doesn’t just benefit the people who don’t look like, act like and belong to our dominant culture – it benefits all of us.
But it takes people willing to rise above their own prejudices and life experiences to see the importance of human rights. In Idaho, one such person is a humble onion farmer from Wilder. It was his mother who taught him to respect all people. But it was seeing Jim Crow in action in Mississippi while stationed in the Army that caused him to spend his life fighting for human rights.
He dropped out of the Elks Club when the club refused to admit a Japanese-American friend. Fifty years ago, as a legislator, he sponsored creation of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. He twice voted for the Equal Rights Amendment for women, once to make it part of our Constitution and once against Idaho’s repeal of the ERA. As Governor, he fought to provide workers compensation insurance for farmworkers, something he had done voluntarily for years, because he believed they deserved the same protection as other workers. Now in retirement he doesn’t understand why the Legislature doesn’t “Add the Words” to prevent discrimination against our LGBT citizens.
That onion farmer is former Republican Governor Phil Batt, who turned 93 years old on March 4 – “Idaho Day.”
I don’t know what Governor Batt thinks of the vote against creating a license plate that proclaims Idaho is “Too Great for Hate.” But I can imagine that he is disappointed. Because through all his fights against discrimination one thing Governor Batt has never given up on is the kindness, goodness and fairness of Idaho’s people.
Ultimately what we all want is to be included. To have a seat at life’s table. It is ironic that as the Legislature was passing discriminatory bills, we face a worldwide pandemic, an enemy that doesn’t discriminate. The coronavirus is the great equalizer, striking rich and poor, LGBT and straight, the powerful and powerless. Perhaps it will take a pandemic to help us see, especially those who hold the power, that everyone must be included because every person is sacred – and because Idaho is Too Great for Hate.
Rod Gramer is writing this as a private citizen and as a member of the Board of the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights. He is also working on a book about Governor Phil Batt.