BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Bishop Brian Thom stood quietly in front of Idaho lawmakers, hastily collecting his thoughts before responding to a question in a room packed with supporters of religious freedom and hundreds of gay rights advocates.
"Can you tell me where gay people come from?" asked Democratic Rep. John McCrostie of Boise — Idaho's only openly gay state lawmaker — as the crowded room let out a small laugh.
The House State Affairs Committee was in its fourth hour Monday of listening to testimony on legislation that would create protections for gay and lesbian people in Idaho. The bill had been denied a public hearing for nine consecutive years by the Republican-controlled Statehouse, but advocates refused to be ignored.
"If you are gay, sir, then I believe God made you that way," said Thom, who supports the bill.
The room erupted in applause, causing Republican committee Chairman Tom Loertscher to bang his gavel and remind the crowd to follow the rules of decorum. But the more Thom spoke, the more the crowd cheered him on.
It was an emotional moment amid the sobering comments both sides presented during Monday's meeting. The committee — made up some of the Statehouse's most conservative lawmakers and only a handful of Democrats — was expected to gather again Tuesday morning to hear more. No date has been set for a vote.
The bill would include the words "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" in the state's Human Rights Act, which already bans discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin in situations like housing or employment.
Currently, 19 states have passed anti-discrimination laws that include sexual-orientation and gender-identity protections. Three states have passed laws protecting just sexual orientation.
The push to hold the hearing peaked last year when protesters disrupted the Statehouse with a series of demonstrations — leading to more than 190 arrests throughout the legislative session and forcing the hand of conservative leaders, who conceded the time for a hearing had finally come.
"My son now presents as my daughter, and I can't bear the thought of my precious child being treated unfairly by anyone simply for being herself," Diane Terhune of Meridian told the panel. "For those of you who think (lesbian and gay) individuals don't need to be protected as a group because they choose their lifestyles, let me tell you that no one chooses this life. It is one of hardship."
Terhune and other gay rights supporters face opposition not only from the state's staunchly conservative legislators but also from Idaho's deeply religious residents. Some said Monday that they fear the bill, commonly known as "Add the Words," will infringe on their rights as individuals and business owners.
"I believe I should have the freedom to hire the employee who I feel like," said Sonja Davis of Idaho Falls. "What segment of society will be next? Tall people? Short people? Fat people?"
While gay rights advocates celebrated the recent legalization of same-sex marriage not only in Idaho but across the majority of the nation, they have repeated that the fight is not over until states pass anti-discrimination laws.
"I want to be valued as a human being based on the person that I am, the person that my mother raised me to be," said Julie Stratton of Post Falls. "Please include my wife and me as fully equal citizens of this state and help us to be proud of living here."
Laura Bunker, president of Arizona-based United Families International, countered by citing cases in other states where businesses were sued for declining to serve to same-sex couples getting married.
"In the end, these non-discrimination laws are not fair to all. Someone is ultimately discriminated against," Bunker said. "Why would Utah, or Idaho — sorry — want to put that kind of wedge between its citizens?"
Doyle Beck of Idaho Falls said the legislation is an insult.
"It implies that Idahoans are nasty people and that we discriminate against our neighbors unless the government somehow intervenes and comes in to straighten us out," he said. "I'm not saying that discrimination doesn't exist, but I am saying that it's very minimal."