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Idaho's Grass-Roots Resist the Patriot Act

Diverse foes include gun collectors and gun- control advocates, liberals and conservatives, all vowing to protect civil liberties.

August 10, 2003|Rebecca Boone | Associated Press Writer

BOISE, Idaho — Put pacifists, gun-rights advocates, abortion-rights supporters and anti-abortion activists in a room and try to find a political viewpoint they all agree on.

It could take awhile.

But bring up the USA Patriot Act -- a national law designed to fight terrorism that critics contend erodes basic civil liberties -- and they may start nodding in agreement.

Such is the case with the Boise Patriots, a group whose diverse members hope to keep the Patriot Act from being implemented in Idaho.

"It may only be when our core civil liberties are under attack that we'll see such a groundswell of activism come out of the woodwork," said Jack Van Valkenburgh, executive director of ACLU-Idaho. "I don't think we've ever had an issue that's brought such a broad cross-section of groups together."

The Patriot Act, passed by Congress shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks, greatly expanded the government's surveillance and detention powers.

The founder of the Boise Patriots contends that the law also diminishes the protections Americans hold under the Bill of Rights, allowing the government to search homes without notifying those who live there, track reading selections people make at libraries or bookstores, and detain immigrants indefinitely for visa violations.

Gwen Sanchirico said she started the Boise Patriots in an effort to get the City Council to pass a resolution affirming the city's dedication to civil liberties and prohibiting the Boise Police Department from using the expanded powers granted under the law. The effort has grown to include state government as well.

Sanchirico and Van Valkenburgh began contacting anyone they thought would be interested in the cause and asked friends to do the same.

Soon, pagans were mingling with Mormons, semiautomatic-weapons collectors with gun-control advocates, Green Party members and Libertarians with Republicans and Democrats.

"It's a very grass-roots approach," Sanchirico said. "We're collecting signatures for two petitions -- one at the state and one at the local level -- and we hear from one or two new people a day saying, 'How can I help, what can I do?' "

One of them was Phyllis Schatz, a Boise Libertarian.

"I like the idea of cooperating with different types of people to achieve one goal," said Schatz, 74. She fears that her descendants could someday be targeted under the Patriot Act.

"Freedom is what I live for and if we can't have freedom, nothing else matters. I've pretty well lived my life in some respects, but I don't want my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to grow in a world where the government is hanging over their heads," she said.

The threats that Americans face under the Patriot Act are bigger than any political ideology, said Elton Nesselrodt, a driver for Panhandle Animal Lab who's worried that he could be persecuted under the law because he is a pagan.

"Just by my affiliation, that puts me at greater chance of having background checks because I'm not traditional. If I go to the library and read something about the occult or metaphysics, that could put up a red flag in a government record somewhere," he said.

Members of the Boise Patriots say they know of few civil rights violations in Idaho under the law, but they want to keep any from happening in the future.

Deanna Lokker, spokeswoman for the Boise Police Department, said that as far as she knows, the department has not used any of the investigative techniques allowed under the new law.

That's true for the Ada County Sheriff's office as well, Sheriff Vaughn Killeen said.

But Killeen, who is running for Boise mayor, does not think that the law should be rescinded.

"It gives law enforcement the ability to investigate terrorism more effectively," he said. "But it should be reviewed. When it comes to issues such as the police or the feds searching your library records without a warrant, I don't agree with that. [But] I think we need to be careful we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater."

Still, Killeen said, he welcomes the attention that groups like the Boise Patriots are bringing to the issue.

"We often pass laws in the wake of tragedies that we later amend when reasonable behavior prevails. A review of the Patriot Act right now is healthy," he said.

Even the legislation's name offends Larry Eastland, a Republican Party activist and former staff assistant to President Ford.

"By implication, they're saying that anyone who disagrees with it is not a patriot, and I strongly disagree with that," Eastland said.

Although he is a supporter of the Bush administration, Eastland said, the law is dangerous.

"If you don't want this power to be put in the hands of scurrilous people, then you don't have the right to ask for it yourself," he said.

"We cannot afford to put our liberty in the hands of the government -- even in the hands of hard-working, right-thinking people -- because once we give it away or allow it to be taken, it is never returned."

The Boise Patriots are optimistic that state and city leaders will be open to the resolutions.

Rep. C. L. "Butch" Otter (R-Idaho) has been a staunch opponent of the Patriot Act, and two City Council members have agreed to meet with the Boise Patriots to review the proposed resolution.

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