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Debate over Proposition 5 intensifies with TV, radio ads

Michelle Theriault Boots

With a vote on a proposed ordinance to extend city anti-discrimination protections to gay, lesbian and transgender residents of Anchorage for the first time less than two weeks away, groups on both sides of the Proposition 5 debate have debuted TV and radio ads.

One Anchorage, the group promoting the Anchorage Equal Right Ordinance, which would add "sexual orientation or transgender identity" to the city's Title 5 code barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age or disability, has been airing a TV commercial featuring a diverse cast of locals who support the measure.

"Everyone in Anchorage deserves the same legal protections," the narrator says over footage of families eating at the downtown Sacks' Cafe and playing in the snow. "Today gay and transgender workers can be fired ... simply because of who they are."

Proponents of the ordinance say that's unfair and needs to change.

The One Anchorage campaign has lined up a roster of supporters that includes local businesses such as Snow City Cafe and the Spenard Roadhouse, five former governors and a group of at least 45 faith leaders that have organized under the name Christians for Equality, along with other individual supporters.

The point of the commercial, said spokesman Trevor Storrs, is to illustrate grass-roots support.

Later, the faces of a retired Anchorage fireman, Michael Burke, a pastor at St. Mary's Episcopal Church and transgender activist Drew Phoenix flash on-screen, one by one.

It has been airing on major stations and in a radio version for over a week, Storrs said.

The ad names the organization's top donors at the time of production as Planned Parenthood, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Pride Foundation and Denver philanthropist Tim Gill, according to disclosure text at the end of the ad. Storrs says 80 percent of the group's fundraising comes from small, individual donors in Alaska.

On the other side, opponents argue Prop. 5 is not needed, vaguely written and would threaten religious liberty by forcing business owners to violate their consciences or face sanctions for non-compliance.

The main opposition group, Protect Your Rights -- Vote No On Prop. 5, is headed by Alaska Family Council leader Jim Minnery. He said his group has focused organizing efforts on church leaders, 80 of whom have signed off on an open letter voicing opposition to Prop. 5.

The anti-initiative group has been airing an advertisement that features cartoon drawings of a hypothetical scenario they say will happen if the law passes.

The commercial, airing on TV stations in Anchorage and in radio form on many talk-format stations, features cartoon drawings of "John," presented as a gay bar owner and drawn wearing a rainbow t-shirt, and "Linda," a bespectacled religious bookstore owner.

"Naturally, John prefers to hire gays to work at his bar and Linda prefers to hire straights," a female narrators says. If Prop. 5 passes, "both John and Linda will be breaking the law."

That claim that John and Linda would be breaking the law with their preferential hiring policies is probably true, says veteran Anchorage labor and employment attorney Thomas M. Daniel, who is not affiliated with either side of the Prop. 5 debate.

"If (the hypothetical Christian bookstore) is a private business, not a church operated bookstore, they couldn't discriminate against a person because they are gay or transgender," he said.

But there's an important point that's been left out of much of the debate over the ordinance, Daniel said. To prove discrimination occurred, a person would have to show they were not hired because they were gay and not for any other reason, like not being the most qualified person for the job.

A radio version of the ad says that people who don't change their hiring practices will face "steep fines and up to 30 days in prison."

According to the head of the agency that would deal with complaints if the ordinance passed, the criminal fine and jail penalties, are a possible but unlikely result.

A person would need to be charged with an offense, such as withholding documents or interfering with an investigation, that rose to misdemeanor level, to be charged with any crime.

"This has never happened with our office," said Pamela Basler, the executive director of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission. "It's sort of hard to envision how it would happen."

Most cases resolve in mediation or a settlement, Basler said.

The message lists top donors as Protect Your Freedom Vote No On Prop 5, a group led by the Anchorage Baptist Temple's Glenn Clary, Chapel By The Sea, a non-denominational South Anchorage church, and Robert Flint, an Anchorage lawyer and board member of the Alaska Family Council.

The ad is meant to highlight the group's argument that under the law people could be compelled to act against their religious or moral conscience.

Prop. 5 would have the effect of "targeting people with a certain viewpoint and removing them from the stream of commerce," Minnery said.

The most recent effort to amend Anchorage's Title 5 nondiscrimination code, which dates back to 1975, began in December of 2011, when the One Anchorage campaign collected 13,515 signatures of registered voters in Anchorage to get the initiative on the ballot.

Co-chairs of the group are former Gov. Tony Knowles and former state Sen. Arliss Sturgulewski.

Prop. 5 is similar to a 2009 ordinance passed by the Anchorage Assembly but vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan, who said he didn't believe discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was a problem in the city.

Sullivan has said he believes a ballot initiative is appropriate approach, because it allows citizens to weigh in on the initiative.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Video: Watch the commercials
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News