An Anchorage faith-based homeless shelter for women is suing the municipality and its Equal Rights Commission over recent changes to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. The shelter says the changes will force it to admit transgender women, which goes against its religious beliefs.
The lawsuit stems in part from a similar case in 2018 brought against the city by the same shelter, the Downtown Hope Center. The city ultimately agreed to pay a $100,001 settlement after a U.S. District Court judge granted an injunction in the shelter’s favor.
The 2018 case was also part of the impetus behind recent changes to the anti-discrimination law, Title 5. The Anchorage Assembly passed changes to the law in a 7-2 vote in May. Some of the changes expanded the law to apply to homeless shelters.
The Hope Center on Wednesday filed its complaint in U.S. District Court, requesting that a judge declare parts of Anchorage’s Title 5 unconstitutional. The law prohibits sex and gender identity discrimination.
The shelter “cannot and will not” comply with the city’s anti-discrimination law “to the extent that those laws require Hope Center to admit biological males into its women’s shelter, since doing so would jeopardize the safety and security of vulnerable women and violate Hope Center’s sincerely held religious beliefs,” the lawsuit states.
It argues that the 50 or so women who sleep at the shelter each night may have been abused, raped and victimized, and would be further traumatized by being forced to sleep and change in the same room as transgender women.
The Assembly in May removed a provision that the court interpreted in 2018 as exempting homeless shelters from the city’s anti-discrimination law. The Assembly also updated a definition to include homeless shelters as public accommodations, to which the law applies.
Some Assembly members who voted in favor of the changes have said they were necessary to protect all vulnerable individuals, including women and people who are transgender.
Assembly member Chris Constant at the May meeting said the city’s 2015 equal rights ordinance was passed with the intent to protect transgender people and that the ordinance should and does protect them. It was the first of its kind in Alaska and expanded protections to LGBTQ people in housing, employment and public accommodations.
“It’s so easy for people to come in here and use transgender individuals as a whipping post. We see this across the country,” Constant said.
The Hope Center is represented by Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal advocacy group that argues religious liberty cases — particularly where religious freedoms conflict with LGBTQ rights — nationwide.
Ryan Tucker, senior counsel with the Alliance, said that the revisions to city code were passed in “direct response to that litigation, targeting the Hope Center once again and so the Hope Center has now been forced to go back to the federal court to defend itself.”
The lawsuit alleges that the municipality is violating the Hope Center’s constitutional rights by forcing it to accept transgender women into its shelter.
It argues that it serves all people, regardless of sex or gender, during the daytime with services such as hot meals and showers. Because of “its religious beliefs and a desire to create a safe and secure environment,” it only allows “biological women” to sleep there overnight, according to the complaint.
“No Hope Center policy prohibits biological women who identify as men from accessing the shelter, and Hope Center has previously allowed biological women who identify as men to access its shelter,” the complaint says.
The Hope Center believes that the Bible teaches that “God creates people male or female; a person’s sex (male or female) is an immutable God-given gift” and that “it is wrong for a person to deny his or her God-given sex,” according to the complaint.
The Alliance also represented the Hope Center in its 2018 case, when it sued the city to stop it from applying its gender identity anti-discrimination law to the shelter after it had denied overnight shelter to a transgender woman.
The changes to city law expanding the gender identity discrimination protections to homeless shelters were proposed to the Assembly by the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and the administration of former Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson.
Mitzi Bolaños Anderson, the commission’s executive director, is also named as a defendant in the case. At an Assembly meeting when the changes were passed, Anderson said that the commission had worked on the revisions for two years, since the previous legal battle with the Hope Center arose.
“I don’t see these two protections of vulnerable populations as mutually exclusive,” Bolaños Anderson said. “I think homeless shelters still have an array of ways to exclude people who are actually threats, who are violent, who may be under the influence, who may be exhibiting threatening behavior. But that can’t be an assumption based on the individual’s gender identity.”
She said that with the changes, if a transgender woman arrives at a women’s shelter and asks for services, and there is no other non-discriminatory reason to exclude the woman, the shelter must provide services.
Tucker in an interview said that the city code infringes on the constitutional rights of the Hope Center, including its freedom to express its religious beliefs and on its freedom of speech, among other rights.
The complaint alleges that the city’s law prohibits the shelter from posting or publishing its religiously based admissions policy.
The Alliance Defending Freedom has litigated recent landmark cases related to LGBTQ rights, including one that led to a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that determined federal protections against sex discrimination in the workplace apply to gay and transgender people. The Alliance also represented a Colorado baker in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after the baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the Alliance as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.