On Thursday, August 13, Assemblyman Bill Evans filed an ordinance banning discrimination against LGBT residents of the municipality. The proposal aims to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected categories in municipal equal rights law.
“The ability of every person in society to be judged based upon their skill, accomplishments, and talents, and not because of some immutable characteristics, is a result we should encourage,” Evans said in a press release. “At a time when we need more citizens to be productive income generators, we cannot tolerate impediments to employment that are not based on actual performance.”
Evans is a conservative member of the body, in the second year of his first term serving South Anchorage. Previous to his tenure on the Assembly, he served twice as the chair of the Board of Directors for the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
Equal rights for LGBT residents played a prominent roll in the mayoral campaign last year, in which Ethan Berkowitz handily defeated freshman Eagle River Assemblywoman Amy Demboski by over 20 points. Evans supported Demboski in the race, and she even credited him for her decision to run.
Berkowitz promised frequently during the campaign to support an anti-discrimination measure, while Demboski opposed such a measure, citing fears over religious liberties. Berkowitz’s transition team report called for legislation adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the municipality’s equal employment opportunity statement within the first six months of office.
The scope of the bill comprises three main tenets, noted in the press release:
(1) It establishes that it is illegal to discriminate against any person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
(2) It protects religious freedoms by including three specific religious-based exemptions from the ordinance.
(3) It changes certain practices of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission that will make it more efficient and effective for employers to defend themselves against charges of discrimination.
However, Evans’ legislation also takes into account Demboski’s concerns. Section 10 of the ordinance would codify religious exemptions. A “ministerial exemption” would maintain that employment of individuals for religious purposes could bar hiring of LGBT workers if sexual orientation or gender identity conflicted with the organization’s doctrinal interpretations.
A second and more complicated “religious conscience exemption” holds that “Except as a condition of a pre-existing employment or contractual relationship, no person, employer or operator of a public accommodation shall be compelled to make any communication in support of, or be compelled to appear at any ceremony, ritual, or observance that is in conflict with a sincerely held and demonstrable religious belief of that person, employer, or operator.”
The ministerial exemption was included in two former attempts to codify anti-discrimination legislation; in 2009’s Ordinance 64, which was passed by the Anchorage Assembly and subsequently vetoed by then-mayor Dan Sullivan, and 2012’s Proposition 5, a ballot initiative that was defeated by voters.
The second exemption is unique to this proposal and will likely be contentious. The provision sets a dangerous precedent of enacting a prohibition against discrimination which can be shrugged off at the individual level, citing a religious belief in conflict with inclusion of the LGBT community.
In other words, previous debate over anti-discrimination has centered on whether or not equal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents of Anchorage are necessary. This round, it will be a discussion over how far those protections should go; whether or not (or how strictly) they should be enforceable.
Enforceability, of course, is a crucial component of a bill targeting discrimination.
The Assembly has enough votes to remove that provision if they feel so inclined. Of the four members who were on the body when Ordinance 64 was proposed, only Eagle River Assemblyman Bill Starr voted against it. Jennifer Johnston, Patrick Flynn, and Elvi Gray-Jackson supported the measure. Starr’s Eagle River colleague, Demboski, is the only other current serving member of the 11-member body who has openly opposed an anti-discrimination measure. Mayor Berkowitz, as mentioned, is supportive. The religious exemptions in the ordinance’s first draft may be, politically speaking, an opening bid.
In 2012, Mel Green published The Anchorage LGBT Discrimination Survey: Final Report. The survey of 268 Anchorage residents who identify as LGBT was conducted because of the lack of quantifiable data proving that such discrimination against LGBT Alaskans in housing and employment existed. As I reported last year:
Specific to the absence of antidiscrimination law protecting LGBT Alaskans in their places of work, 44 percent of respondents reported they had undergone harassment for their sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender presentation. 14.6 percent said they had been fired or terminated. Once again, residents living in Anchorage for less than five years reported higher rates; two-thirds said they hid their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender transition in order to avoid employment discrimination. 38 percent said they experienced harassment, and 10 reported they had been forced to leave that job as a result.
In July of this year, UCLA’s Williams Institute corroborated those findings, estimating that the with the lack of a statewide ban on discrimination roughly “13,100 LGBT workers in Alaska are vulnerable to employment discrimination[.]”
Two bills aimed at such statewide protections are currently before the state legislature, but were not addressed last session.
Evans’ ordinance will be introduced at the Assembly’s August 25 meeting. Public testimony will begin the following meeting on September 15.