New version of LGBT discrimination measure submitted to Anchorage Assembly

When Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans proposed a law banning discrimination over sexual orientation and gender identity, he billed it as a compromise to balance added protections with religious-based exemptions.

But not everyone the ordinance was supposed to satisfy is seeing it that way. After criticism from all sides, a new proposal has been put forward to change or eliminate some of the religious exemptions to the law Evans had proposed. Some social conservatives, meanwhile, say the exemptions allowed by Evans' proposed law don't go far enough.

The new proposal came this week from Assembly member Patrick Flynn, who submitted an alternate version of the measure that, among other changes, removes an exemption based on "religious conscience." Flynn said his changes are based on conversations with faith groups, advocates for the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community and business leaders.

"(Evans) tried to carve out a new definition of what a faith-based objection might be," Flynn said. "I'm basically retreating back to First Amendment rights ... trying to find the right balance to make it all come together."

At least on a policy level, agreement on anti-discrimination laws has eluded Anchorage for years. At least two other attempts, a 2009 ordinance and a 2012 ballot measure, failed -- the ordinance to a mayoral veto and the ballot measure to a 58 percent majority vote. Evans' effort comes amid a broad national debate about balancing equal protection laws with religious freedom, which has flared again in recent days over the jailing of a Kentucky county clerk.

The local debate, meanwhile, seems to be shaping up to be a nuanced one, with fragmented opinions within communities that Evans hoped to reconcile.

In his substitute version, Flynn replaced the "religious conscience" exemption with a sentence stating local law would not trump state and federal First Amendment rights. He took out new responsibilities for the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, saying that issue needs to be addressed in a separate ordinance. He also revised language about requirements for dress codes and restrooms; the measure now says employees should be allowed to use facilities and dress in ways "consistent with their gender identity."

Based on feedback from religious leaders, Flynn said his measure also broadens and strengthens an exemption for those with ministerial duties.

Evans said he appreciated Flynn's efforts to address concerns, but said the alternate version would not provide the same religious protections as his original ordinance, which has gained Assembly members Ernie Hall and Jennifer Johnston as co-sponsors.

The religious conscience clause, Evans said, had a purpose: It would allow bakers and photographers to refuse to serve same-sex weddings on religious grounds.

"It's about not forcing people to go (to those ceremonies) if they don't want to," Evans said.

Jim Minnery, president of the nonprofit Christian public policy organization Alaska Family Action and a key organizer in the successful effort to defeat a 2012 gay rights measure in Anchorage, said his group hadn't yet seen Flynn's revisions. But he said his organization objects to the ordinance proposed by Evans, whom he criticized for reneging on campaign promises to not support such a law, and said Flynn's version is likely even less acceptable.

Minnery said his organization agrees businesses should not be turning away customers or firing employees based on sexual orientation. But he said Anchorage is already a tolerant city and such laws put people of faith in a position of being forced by the government to violate religious principles. He argued Evans' ordinance would be a waste of resources.

"Why don't we just realize we live in a pluralistic society and do our best to get along?" Minnery said. "If there's widespread discrimination, let's talk about it."

Both Evans and Flynn said the point is not to quantify the level of of discrimination in the community. Evans pointed out that, for example, city law prevents discrimination against Hungarians, which isn't a widespread phenomenon.

"Whether it happens or not, it's a statement of our community's values," Evans said.

Minnery said he's expecting Evans' measure to pass. He said his group is already looking into the future.

"We have to equip the public to understand the threats that are really there, that the government has no business telling citizens what they can't say," Minnery said.

Other religious groups had a different take on Evans' proposed ordinance. On Tuesday, a mixture of several dozen clergy and laypersons met at First Presbyterian Church to talk about Evans' proposal. The meeting was hosted by the group Christians For Equality, which formed in Anchorage after the community debates over the 2009 gay rights law.

Much of the discussion focused on the "religious conscience" clause, which was generally found to be too broad, said the Rev. Michael Burke, pastor of St. Mary's Episcopal Church and one of the five steering committee members of the group.

Burke said there was concern the clause went "well beyond the legitimate bounds of claims to religious liberty." Those who enter the public marketplace are agreeing to rules of conduct that apply to everyone, he said.

"If every person got to claim exemptions from the law for sincerely held, if perhaps idiosyncratic, beliefs, the entire way society functions would have to be renegotiated," Burke said. He said in his group's view, the legitimate claims would relate to jobs with a substantial amount of religious teaching, oversight or supervision, not to the baking or photography professions.

Burke said the group also found the clause problematic because it appeared to effectively overturn prohibitions against discrimination based on race or sex -- making it legally possible for someone to refuse to serve or attend an interracial marriage based on religious belief, which Evans said would indeed be the case.

Drew Phoenix, the executive director of Identity Inc., Anchorage's largest LGBT advocacy organization, declined to comment Friday on legal specifics surrounding Evans' ordinance, which his group reviewed before its introduction. He said Identity Inc.'s lawyers were still reviewing it closely. When it was first introduced, Phoenix praised the ordinance, and said Friday he remains hopeful that whatever measure passes is "as fully inclusive as possible."

Local business leaders also may weigh into the debate publicly. At Evans' request, the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. has been "looking very closely" at the language of the Evans ordinance and deciding whether to draft a letter of support, said Bill Popp, president and CEO.

Evans' ordinance and Flynn's alternate version will be discussed at an Assembly work session Friday. The Assembly is set to take public testimony at its Sept. 15 meeting at the Loussac Library.

Evans said he doesn't plan to propose changes of his own. Language, he said, is less important than how the city goes about addressing the issue.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.