An effort to repeal Anchorage's new law barring discrimination against gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people is shifting gears, with the law's opponents saying they now want to ask voters to amend the law instead of striking it down.
In a March 14 letter to his group's supporters, Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, a conservative social issues group, described plans to submit "significant amendments" to the law as a city ballot initiative in the coming weeks.
"While not fully repealing the misguided law, our intent is to bring balance and create equal protections for people of faith who want to live and work in the public marketplace without fear of government intrusion and legal intimidation," Minnery wrote in the letter.
In a phone interview this week, Minnery said he expected a ballot initiative would be filed with the city sometime in April, a year before the next regular municipal election, though a local initiative could piggyback on a state ballot earlier. He said the amendments would mainly focus on expanding the law's exemptions for religious conscience.
The Anchorage Assembly passed the law 9-2 in October, making it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity in public accommodations, housing and employment.
A group that formed in January to defend the law, Fair Anchorage, obtained a copy of Minnery's letter and published it on Facebook last week. The group also released a statement saying it "condemned" what it called an effort to "gut" the law.
"Our ordinance has worked well for the past six months, with none of the opponents' fears finding any basis in fact," Drew Phoenix, executive director of Alaskans Together for Equality, said in the statement.
Phoenix said in an interview the group is worried the law's protections would be diminished by amplified religious exemptions.
An Anchorage pastor and member of the group Christians for Equality, Michael Burke, said on Facebook that the law already contained strong protections for faith communities. The law includes exemptions for religious groups and those with ministerial duties, and it cites a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case that found federal discrimination laws could not be applied to the selection of religious leaders by religious organizations.
Minnery said in the interview he disagreed that the law does enough to protect people of faith. He said he's concerned, based on examples in other cities, that people of faith could be fired from their jobs or sued if they violate the anti-discrimination law, though it hasn't happened in Anchorage since the law took effect. He said businesses should be given stronger protections for religious conscience.
"It's good that people are being protected from not getting a loan because they're gay," Minnery said. "But the reality is, no one should have to be told by the government that you have to provide a service that goes against your deeply held convictions."
Minnery said Alaska Family Action is also preparing amendments aimed at the provision in the law that allows business operators to provide gender-segregated locker rooms, restrooms or dressing rooms, as long as people can use the facilities consistent with their gender identity. He said his group is uncomfortable with the idea that someone who is biologically male can walk into a women's restroom.
Supporters of the Fair Anchorage campaign say the law acknowledges how transgender people have used public facilities for decades, and say they're working to dispel what they call "harmful myths" surrounding that and other provisions. The campaign filed paperwork with the Alaska Public Offices Commission in January that allows it to raise money, and a website has been launched that aims to educate Anchorage residents about the law and make a business case for its preservation.
Phoenix, a transgender man, said a series of videos about being transgender in Anchorage is expected to be released in May.
Even before the Assembly passed the ordinance, threats of a challenge arose. In late November, a repeal effort surfaced, but the referendum stalled when petitioners and the city attorney's office couldn't agree on ballot language.
In February, a poll conducted by Alaska Dispatch News found a majority of Anchorage voters supported the law and would not vote to repeal it. Minnery said his organization's shift in strategy wasn't necessarily a result of polling, but he did call the effort an "olive branch."
"If it will make some people in Anchorage feel better that (the law) is in place, let's leave it in place," Minnery said. "But let's make sure that those who have religious views, or different views on public restrooms and locker rooms, let's make sure they also have their concerns addressed as well."
If proposed amendments are submitted as an initiative and approved by the city attorney's office, the petitioners will need to gather 5,754 signatures to put the measure on the April 2017 city ballot.
Assemblyman Bill Evans, who introduced the non-discrimination law in the first place, said he hasn't seen any details of what Minnery's group might propose. But he noted the original version of his ordinance contained more exceptions for religious businesses and individuals which were later amended out.
"I can't help but see the irony that this was basically the same sort of proposal I made initially," Evans said.
Evans said he would not, however, support any changes to the law's provisions for locker rooms and bathrooms. He said the provisions were aimed at reflecting the status quo of how transgender people use public facilities.