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History repeats itself as public debates Anchorage gay rights ordinance

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 15, 2015

The Anchorage Assembly will continue a public hearing Wednesday on a proposed ordinance to ban discrimination in Anchorage on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

More than 110 people signed up to testify before the Anchorage Assembly on the ordinance. People packed into the Assembly chambers and filed into a second theater across the lobby to watch often-emotional testimony on a big screen. But protests and demonstrations, which defined weeks of hearings about similar legislation in 2009, were noticeably absent from Tuesday's hearing.

Three versions of the ordinance were up for public hearing, all of which would guarantee equal rights in employment, housing, and public accommodations for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. The versions differ over whether people, businesses or organizations could claim religion as a legal grounds to discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. A compromise measure authored by Assembly members Bill Evans and Patrick Flynn aimed to strike a balance between equal rights and religious exemption.

Most of the initial testimony was in favor of the Evans-Flynn ordinance. Early on, a transgender man and transgender woman said they had been denied housing or evicted based on their gender identity, and others cited instances of discrimination in Anchorage.

One woman told the Assembly she works for a religious school, is married to a woman, and fears that her employer will dismiss her based on her sexual orientation.

"I'm choosing to take the risk because people need to hear the message," the teacher, Colleen Heaney, said.

Leaders of multiple Anchorage religious congregations voiced support for added protections for LGBT individuals. So did an influential local business group that tracks Anchorage's economic growth. Bill Popp, president and CEO of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said his organization's board had unanimously voted Tuesday morning to support the measure, and cited documented examples of discrimination in Anchorage.

Opposition to the ordinance became more frequent as the meeting went on. Many of those who spoke out against the measure cited religious beliefs for doing so, and said they felt attacked because they were Christians.

Shirley Smith, 63, approached the podium holding her Bible in the crook of her arm. She, like many others, chided Assembly members for revisiting legislation that Anchorage voters overwhelmingly rejected in 2012.

In a Facebook post on Monday, Rev. Jerry Prevo, pastor at Anchorage Baptist Temple, called the ordinance an "outright attack on Christianity, Christian organizations, churches, and religious schools," in all capital letters.

Glenn Clary, assistant pastor at the Anchorage Baptist Temple, told the Assembly to consider language that would offer an equal level of protection for religious individuals and institutions. He said that if the ordinance passes, church officials would next consider a ballot measure to repeal it, or a state law to include religious protections.

Former State Sen. Fred Dyson testified and warned of a "Pandora's box" when it comes to restrooms and other public accommodations.

"Every Alaskan should be free to work according to their faith without fear of being unjustly punished by their government," said David Bronson, a board member of the conservative Alaska Family Council.

One woman brought a trumpet, brandished a tampon and animatedly read verses from the Bible.

Assembly members made few comments during the testimony. Evans, a South Anchorage representative, has framed his ordinance as a statement of community values rather than a reaction to specific incidents of discrimination. His compromise measure with Flynn appears to have garnered the support of most fellow Assembly members across the conservative and liberal blocs.

In 2009, Flynn authored a similar ordinance that expanded equal rights protections but included exemptions for religious individuals and institutions. Acting Mayor Matt Claman pushed the measure forward in his final six months in office.

But opponents of the ordinance turned out in droves to testify against it. Public hearings stretched into July, and by then, the city had a new mayor, Dan Sullivan.

The Assembly passed the ordinance 7-4. A week later, Sullivan vetoed it. Echoing comments from conservative Assembly members, Sullivan wrote in his veto message that "there is clearly a lack of quantifiable evidence necessitating this ordinance."

Supporters of the measure tried again with a referendum in 2012, but it failed overwhelmingly at the ballot box.

Since then, Evans and others on the Assembly have said, the climate has changed. Same-sex marriage became legal in Alaska in 2014 following a federal judge's ruling. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce took up an initiative that encourages local businesses to embrace the LGBT community, part of a broader initiative to make Anchorage into America's No. 1 city to live in by 2025.

And Anchorage's new mayor, Ethan Berkowitz, has voiced strong support for expanding equal rights protections to LGBT individuals.

Berkowitz spokesman Myer Hutchinson said Tuesday it was too soon to say exactly what the mayor would do, but reiterated earlier messages from the administration.

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