A national conservative Christian legal group says the gay rights initiative on Anchorage's April 3 city election ballot, coupled with existing Anchorage discrimination law, undercuts religious liberty.
But a well-known Anchorage employment lawyer, Thomas Daniel, says he doesn't think the initiative impinges on freedom for religious groups at all.
The initiative up for public vote would extend legal protections against discrimination to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Anchorage. Current law already prohibits discrimination in employment, loans, rentals, real estate deals and other activities on the basis of race, color, marital status, sex, religion, disabilities and the like. The initiative would add sexual orientation and transgender identity to the list.
The initiative made it to the ballot through petitions signed by thousands of voters.
As the campaigns develop for and against this controversial issue, religion and legal views are shaping arguments on both sides.
A story relaying concerns the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., has with the initiative popped up in early January in The Catholic Anchor, a publication of the Archdiocese of Anchorage.
The main problem as the Alliance Defense Fund sees it is that private business owners could be forced to hire or do business with people whose sexual orientation doesn't match their religious beliefs, said Holly Carmichael, a lawyer for the fund.
"The ultimate concern with enacting something like that is that it infringes on religious freedoms," Carmichael said. "There's a huge constitutional concern here."
Both Carmichael and Daniel, the Anchorage attorney, agree that religious organizations are protected by an exemption already in city law that says religious institutions and groups can give preferential treatment to people of the same religion if they are, for example, hiring someone who will promote religious principles.
Carmichael says the exemption is too narrow in that it doesn't protect other business owners or employees in the same way as it does religious groups.
Daniel says the Anchorage exemption was bolstered by a U.S. Supreme Court decision last week in favor of a church-related employer. A religion teacher at a church school who said she was fired for a disability-related claim brought the case. The court said discrimination law doesn't apply due to a religious exemption, and ruled in favor of the employer. The government shouldn't interfere in religious groups' hiring and firing decisions about people such as ministers and religion teachers, the court said.
Daniel is an expert in this field of law, but he said he is not associated with either side in the Anchorage initiative battle.
The Defense Fund analyzed the Anchorage initiative several weeks ago at the request of the Alaska Family Council, a conservative Christian organization that opposes the initiative.
"We just want to be really clear about the consequences of enacting it," said Jim Minnery, Alaska Family Council president.
Although the Family Council gave a copy of the Defense Fund analysis to the Catholic Anchor, the council declined to give the document to the Daily News. Minnery said the council shared it with a reporter for the Catholic publication because the reporter is aligned with the thinking of his group.
Minnery said he is counting on churches to come out against the initiative and that the Family Council has not yet started raising money to wage a campaign or filed as a ballot group with the state.
Supporters of the initiative also include religious people, with 40 ordained pastors plus others in two pro-initiative groups, Christians for Equality and Faith Leaders for Equality, said the Rev. Michael Burke of St. Mary's Episcopal Church.
Burke said sponsors of the initiative consciously decided not to change the existing Anchorage law regarding religious exemptions to discrimination law. In cases where religious principles are not involved, religious groups do have to follow discrimination law with regard to race, color, sex, religion, etc. But the initiative sponsors did not add sexual orientation or transgender identity to the list.
"The head of a church can decide not to hire someone who is gay or lesbian and that's acceptable," Burke said.
In 2009, the Anchorage Assembly passed a gay rights law similar to the initiative, but Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed it.
Burke said he supported the 2009 proposal but worried it didn't do enough to protect religious freedoms. This initiative does a better job of it, he said.
Reach Rosemary Shinohara at email@example.com or 257-4340.
By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
Anchorage Daily News