Flurry of amendments proposed before debate on Anchorage LGBT rights law

Anchorage's LGBT rights law is far from being settled despite a public hearing last week, with 17 amendments proposed Friday that included rules dealing with sex-segregated locker rooms and new religious exemptions.

The flurry of revisions target aspects of an Anchorage Assembly ordinance that would ban discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. Some of the amendments discussed at an Assembly work session Friday conflict with each otherr.

Of the six Assembly members who suggested changes, Amy Demboski made the most proposals. Demboski's six amendments included restoring a "religious conscience" exemption to the law and requiring the ordinance to go to a public advisory vote in April.

Demboski is also one of three Assembly members proposing to allow employers to segregate locker rooms based on a person's anatomy. The most recent version of the ordinance, a compromise co-authored by Assembly members Bill Evans and Patrick Flynn, states that employers can maintain gender-segregated restrooms, locker rooms or dressing rooms as long as visitors can use the facilities based on their gender identity, a more complex state than physical anatomy.

Demboski and Assembly member Ernie Hall each proposed amendments that would allow employers to require people to use sex-segregated locker rooms "in accordance with their current anatomy." Demboski cited "personal modesty and privacy sensitivity" as grounds for giving discretion to operators in assigning a client to a sex-specific facility.

An amendment from Assembly member Bill Starr allows employers to segregate restrooms in ways that give users "a reasonable expectation that they will be sharing the room with individuals who have the same assigned sex at birth or those who have completed sexual reassignment surgery." Starr also separately proposed allowing operators to use a questionnaire or other method to gather information about a person's gender.

In hours of public testimony at last week's Assembly meeting, many Anchorage residents approached the microphone and said they worried that men would use the new law as a pretense to enter women's restrooms. But Drew Phoenix, executive director of the LGBT advocacy organization Identity Inc., said after leaving Friday's work session that he is concerned that the discussion and the new amendments are "putting the onus on the transgender individual."

"If somebody does have an issue, whoever they are, we can make accommodations for them," Phoenix said.

The Anchorage School District has adopted guidelines that allow students and employees to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity. Administrators have said they'll make accommodations for students, transgender or not, who are uncomfortable with the arrangements.

Planet Fitness, a national fitness center with several Anchorage locations, has a policy that allows members and guests to use gym facilities based on gender identity.

On a local level, the Assembly debate is being closely watched by the owners and managers of Anchorage fitness and recreational facilities. The owner of the Body Renew Alaska fitness club, Brian Horschel, said the business is following the discussions and debating its own policies.

"It hasn't presented itself as a problem, but it's something we want to stay ahead of," Horschel said. "It should be a safe, enjoyable environment for any member of our facility."

The Alaska Club has also been tracking the ordinance, said public relations director Tina Day. Day said the club is holding ongoing discussions, though she said she couldn't comment further. She added that most of the Alaska Club's larger facilities are already equipped with coed locker rooms for families.

In April, the Anchorage Community YMCA opened a new "family assist" locker room, which includes five changing rooms equipped with showers, sinks and toilets, said Larry Parker, chief executive of the center.

The new locker room was built mainly to allow special-needs clients to come into the locker room with a caregiver of the opposite sex, but it also serves to accommodate transgender clients, Parker said. He said there are already unisex restrooms in the facility.

"I empathize with everyone trying to come up with a good solution," Parker said, adding that he feels his agency is in a "good spot" with its accommodations. He said the YMCA has had very few incidents involving transgender clients over the years but that clearer guidelines from the city would be helpful for future renovations.

Religious exemptions

A number of amendments presented Friday sought to add equivalent protections to the ordinance for people with religious objections. The Evans-Flynn version includes exemptions to the law for religious groups and institutions and those with ministerial duties.

Demboski suggested language that would allow religious groups to refuse to host ceremonies that conflict with their faith and would prevent Anchorage government from retaliating against such groups in city funding or zoning matters.

Demboski also restored a "religious conscience" exemption that Evans included when he originally proposed the ordinance in August but later took out because he said it seemed to be too broad.

"This is intended as a narrow exception that only clarifies free speech rights," Demboski wrote in her amendment.

Another amendment, proposed by Assembly Chair Dick Traini,, would prevent an employee from being fired for expressing religious beliefs at work.

"To me it's a fairness issue," Traini said during Friday's meeting.

Traini also proposed extending religious protections to "nonprofit affiliates" such as Catholic charities and to some nonprofit groups. In the amendment, Traini cited a U.S. Supreme Court case that found that the Boy Scouts had a First Amendment right to exclude a gay volunteer from participating.

There were dueling suggestions for the scope of a ministerial exemption aimed at those who teach or spread religious doctrine. Flynn put forward an amendment to narrow the scope of the exemption, but Evans suggested the city should adopt a Supreme Court standard instead. Evans included a reference to a case involving a Lutheran teacher who taught secular subjects and was found to be covered by ministerial exemption.

The language of the proposed amendments could still change by Tuesday's meeting. And more could be coming, though Traini vowed he would vote against any new amendments proposed after Friday's work session.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.