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After Anchorage approves LGBT protections, foes prepare new challenges

  • Author: Suzanna Caldwell
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 30, 2015

The Anchorage Assembly's passage late Tuesday night of an ordinance making it illegal to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people left supporters cheering and opponents organizing to overturn it.

Supporters of the ordinance expressed relief that after four previous attempts in the Assembly and once at the ballot, the measure looked virtually certain to move ahead Wednesday. The ordinance is set to take effect Friday without objection from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz -- marking the first time an Anchorage mayor has not vetoed such an act.

Drew Phoenix, who runs the nonprofit LGBT advocacy group Identity Inc., called the vote a good first step toward protections for LGBT people. But he acknowledged that opponents are already working toward crafting legislation to overturn the ordinance.

Despite the threat, Phoenix was pleased with the outcome.

"What's so exciting is this vote happened across party lines," Phoenix said. "(The Assembly) did it with a lot of really amazing, cooperative conversation. That didn't happen in the past and that leaves me hopeful."

Passed on a 9-2 vote, the ordinance adds protections to Anchorage equal rights laws for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people in housing, employment and public accommodations and includes exemptions for religious groups and those with ministerial duties. Once enacted, the Anchorage ordinance will be the only law of its kind in Alaska.

On a national level, that makes Alaska an outlier, said Christy Mallory, a senior counsel at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, who specializes in state and local nondiscrimination laws and policies.

"There aren't many states that don't have a single ordinance," Mallory said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Mallory said the laws all vary, with some just protecting city workers and others just protecting the employees of city contractors. The Anchorage law is relatively broad, she said.

Mallory added that the adoption of broad protections in one city often leads to a "ripple effect" across the state.

City officials in Bethel said last week they were drafting language to protect city workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In late July, about two weeks before Anchorage Assemblyman Bill Evans unveiled his proposed ordinance, a Juneau Assembly member said he was drafting a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Josh Hemsath, Pride Foundation regional development organizer, said in other states advocacy groups tend to lead the efforts, but that in Alaska, it appears the movement is more locally driven and organic.

"Here in Alaska, the independent spirit really reigns free," he said.

Alaska Family Action President Jim Minnery said that he's heard from pastors who are "up in arms" over what he called the state inserting itself in religious issues.

"To rule out giving the people another say would be foolish," he said in a phone interview Wednesday, noting that in 2012, 58 percent of Anchorage voters rejected a ballot initiative adding similar protections. "I think it's kind of an obligation that we have."

Minnery wasn't alone in that assessment. During debate, Assembly member Amy Demboski of Eagle River, one of only two no votes on the ordinance, questioned the intrusion of government on the issue. She called Tuesday's outcome "the tyranny of the Anchorage Assembly" and saw the issue as a call to action.

"You can only take it back. Get out to vote. Next election, April 2016. You should go out, phone 10 friends ... get involved," she said during the debate. "And you know what? Throw 'em out of office."

In an interview Wednesday, Minnery said the religious "ministerial exemptions" introduced in an amendment to the ordinance Tuesday night don't go far enough in exempting people of faith from complying with the ordinance. He noted that everyone at a Christian school, for example, could be considered ministers under his personal definition, from the janitor to the lunch lady. He questioned whether they would be covered under the ordinance exemptions.

The Rev. Michael Burke of Christians For Equality expressed his own frustrations over Minnery's problems with the ordinance. The exempting amendment, introduced by Evans, cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlines who qualifies for exemptions. Burke said that unanimous Supreme Court decision had won some powerful endorsements from conservative organizations, including the National Review and the Beckett Fund.

He said he believes that if conservative leaders simply read the decision, they would understand it offers adequate protections to people of faith -- if they truly hold those beliefs.

"There has to be some kind of test," he said. "I mean, there is a test to see whether the fire safety code is working. The church is never completely exempt from any type of government oversight."

Burke said the religious exemption in the ordinance would cover nearly every serious objection that could arise, though if a church wanted to discriminate against a person who had little to do with ministry, it might find itself in trouble.

"It's going to cover 95 percent of what they're concerned about, but if they're worried that maybe the person out there mowing the lawn might be gay, you know, that might happen," Burke said.

Whatever happens next, Phoenix and other LGBT advocates said they will continue networking, educating people and continuing the conversation that led to Tuesday's vote.

"A lot has happened in the last three years since Prop 5," Phoenix said of the 2012 proposition that was turned down by Anchorage voters. "Who ever thought we'd have marriage equality at this early stage?"

Alaska Dispatch News reporter Devin Kelly contributed to this story.