Home Community Politics Assembly Beat: Anchorage LGBT Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Filed in Anchorage

LGBT Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Filed in Anchorage

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Photo by Thomas Belarde.
Photo by Thomas Belarde.

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.

John Aronno is a co-founder, managing editor, and award winning political writer at Alaska Commons. Aronno has had his work featured in the Huffington Post, the Anchorage Press, the Alaska Dispatch, and the Rachel Maddow Show, and is listed among the state’s top reporters on the Washington Post’s “The Fix.” He writes the weekly column “On Politics” for Alaska Commons. Aronno lives in Anchorage, Alaska with his wife, Heather Aronno, and a lot of pets.

8 COMMENTS

  1. So, there is a catch to it. I didn’t really think Evans, with his voting record, self declaration, and active engagement in discriminatory policy, would be capable of doing an about-face, and become an advocate for inclusion. We will see how this fleshes out, and how he ultimately votes. He already has headlines naming him favorable to anti-discriimination, he can now lie back, throw up his hands when it all goes South and say that he tried. It’s close to his election year.

  2. Its actually not that close to my election year. I am not even half-way through my term. And frankly if my concern was re-election, this would not be a sensible vehicle to achieve that end. I don’t believe that people should be discriminated against base on their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think those are immutable characteristics that are no one else’s business and should not be factor in the workplace or marketplace. Evaluate people on their skills, talents and abilities, not on those other factors. But I also believe that we should not dictate what religious groups preach and practice. Religious freedom has long been a cornerstone principle of this country and I simply want to ensure that the expansion of protections in one area is not at the expense of freedoms in another area. I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. I sought to recognize that in my ordinance…for better or worse.

  3. This is a thinly veiled attempt to codify discrimination, persecution and shaming of people who do not align with another person’s religious beliefs. I think it’s a jerk maneuver and extremely short-sighted in its thinking. How some cannot see the folly of entangling civic liberty with religious philosophy is truly disturbing. To believe that this cannot lead to a shari’ah law refuge in our own midst…well, you’re only fooling yourself and placing the blame on your own faith in the process. This opens the door to rampant discrimination based on much more than gender identity or the gay community. What would stop any business owner, municipal clerk or DMV worker from claiming a religious exemption against anyone of any identity they felt didn’t align with their beliefs? Nothing. All you would have to do is claim they were gay or in some way not a person your faith accepts. We are not a society of homogenous beliefs, and God help us if we try to force this on our community.

  4. Kevin, you may have noticed that all Catholic priests are males. How does that occur in a country that makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex? It occurs because for a very long time we have entangled civic liberty with religious philosophy. We exempt religions from a number of our civil rights laws. And remarkably that has not resulted in the imposition of shari’ah law. Anchorage has had a religious exemption from its civil rights laws for decades. This is not new ground. The ordinance does expand this exemption in a significant way, however, and I understand that is causing some people pause. It says that you cannot compel someone to attend your ceremony or ritual and you cannot force them to “communicate” support for your endeavor. It specifically removes employees from this exemption so you could not have a DMV worker or a municipal clerk choosing not to do their job on the basis of their individual religious beliefs. I would strongly recommend reading the ordinance…its a bit long and really boring and full of legalese, but I think most folks who try will get the gist. I agree with the short-sighted comment…I must admit I never saw that shari’ah law angle coming.

  5. Mr Evans – thank you for responding here. I have read the ordinance and like many others I am left scratching my head at the religious exemptions part. Can you answer a question we all have?

    Will “bona fide” religious or denominational institutions, organizations, corporations, associations, educational institutions, and societies be able to use the religious exemptions part of your ordinance to deny employment, financing, housing and other services? Does this mean that a corporation claiming a religious purpose can legally discriminate when hiring? What if that corporation has property, can they legally deny housing to LGBT tenants?

    Would you mind explaining the exemptions a little better for the non lawyers reading this article?

  6. Thanks for the question. I’ll try. I am afraid it will be bit lengthy to do it right. The existing equal rights law had a religious preference exemption that allowed “a bona fide religious or denominational institution, organization, corporation, association, educational institution, or society” to give preferential treatment in “hiring, admissions, accommodations, etc to its own followers. This exemption is limited by the fact that the preferential hiring has to be “reasonably calculated to promote the religious principles of the the church or institution. That has been the existing law for decades. It does not apply to regular corporations or businesses, but only religious entities. Basically, churches get to give hiring preference to their own adherents. For the most part, I did not change this exemption with respect to hiring, etc. I did add one sentence to this exemption that reads: “and this title shall not be interpreted or applied to require such an organization to act in violation of the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.” The reason for this added language was to ensure that it was clear that Churches that had some sort of religious objection to same sex marriages would not be compelled to perform such ceremonies. In other words you could not force your local Catholic church to perform your same sex marriage ceremony. I believe that there are other laws that would also provide this protection, but I wanted to make it clear from the outset that this law was not changing that right.

    In addition to that one sentence I added two other new exemptions. The first, and less controversial is the “Ministerial Exemption.” This is probably a redundant exemption but it reiterates that the hiring of anyone who is employed to teach or spread a religious doctrine is exempt from this title. Accordingly, certain religions can hire only male priests without violating the sex discrimination provision.

    The final addition is more controversial. It is the “Religious Conscience Exemption.” This is the only exemption that would apply to something other than a church or religious organization. This exemption is actually far narrower, however, than many people fear. It prevents anyone from being compelled to “make any communication in support of, or be compelled to appear at any ceremony, ritual, or observance” that is conflict with that persons demonstrable religious belief. As you probably can surmise, this exemption was designed to avoid all the recent stories about certain vendors being compelled to provide services to a same sex wedding service. It is important to understand that this is a fairly narrow exception. For instance, if you had a cake shop and a gay couple came in to purchase a cake for their wedding, this exemption would not allow you to refuse them service since selling a cake is not a communication in support of their ceremony, ritual or observance. (although there is a baker in Colorado who has argued that making cakes is art and is thus a form of communication). It is also not requiring the cake shop to attend the ceremony. It would absolutely not permit any business or individual to refuse to rent to any LGBT persons (or other protected categories). It only prevents the business from being compelled to attend or communicate in favor of a ceremony or ritual.

    Accordingly, there is no exemption that would allow any business or person to refuse service to someone on the basis of their membership in any protected category. I understand there is a lot of fear and suspicion regarding these exemptions, but I think people will see that they are truly intended to be narrowly tailored. Those of us who shared in drafting the language tried to protect some extreme cases while not allowing an exemption that would license wholesale discrimination. Admittedly it is difficult to craft the right language that prevents a few isolated incidents while protecting individual generally.

    I hope that helps somewhat. If you have further questions feel free to email me at evansb@muni.org

  7. Some officials in Anchorage are trying to get an Ordinance passed that will do the following: Force churches to hire Practicing Homosexuals into any other job in the church other than one which directly teaches the beliefs, Word of God, to others. Force churches to allow men who dress as women, and women who dress as men to go into bathrooms and changing rooms with people of the opposite sex.. Men can dress as a woman and go change their clothes with women and little children, little girls present……Women who dress as men can go into Men’s dressing rooms and bathrooms and get naked in front of men and children…. or face being sued… That is what this ordinance does.

  8. Actually the existing Religious Preference Exception allows churches, religious schools and other similar entities to hire persons of the same denomination or religion as long as it is reasonably calculated to promote the religious principles for which the entity is established. Accordingly, under existing law a church would not have to hire a “practicing” homosexual (whatever that is) if doing so would be harmful to the religious principles for which the entity is established. It does not list the types of positions that would apply to which would likely vary from church to church depending upon how the church operates. Thus if a particular Church can “legitimately” claim that hiring a person as a landscaper or janitor who is gay would violate the principles for which the church is established it would not have to hire that person. This is at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections and cannot be undone by the Assembly regardless of their intentions. As far as the bathroom, the ordinance does not allow men to dress as women to use the opposite restroom. It only applies to persons who are legitimately transgender and not to any man who simply chooses to put on a dress. Predators can currently try to dress as the opposite sex to gain access to restrooms. This ordinance does nothing to promote such activity.

What do you think?