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Amended, Anchorage rights ordinance is an act of justice long overdue

  • Author: Michael Burke
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published September 26, 2015

They called it "the summer of hate." It was in the heat of August 2009, when red-shirted protesters, many believed to be bused in from churches in the Valley, lined the entrances to the Anchorage Assembly chambers. "Homosexuals are going straight to Hell," proclaimed one sign. A local pastor, dressed in a clergy collar and on his way in to testify on behalf of the nondiscrimination ordinance, was confronted by an angry red-shirted woman who stepped off the curb to block his way. "Methodisssst!," she hissed, and spat on the ground. It was an absurd, but sad and telling moment in an otherwise ugly period in our city's history.

In the next few weeks, the Assembly is again poised to consider an ordinance that would extend equal protection under the law for persons irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity. In various forms, this is an issue that Anchorage has been working on since the 1970s. It is now well past time to get it done.

There is no longer any credible argument about the reality of discrimination. Both our own long experiences as pastors in this community, and years of Assembly testimony have well-established the myriad ways in which our fellow citizens have been discriminated against in housing, employment, and public services simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Assembly members Bill Evans and Patrick Flynn, working from different starting points on the political spectrum, have come together to craft a proposed ordinance that brings together differing perspectives. They should be congratulated for their leadership and their willingness to listen to all sides.

To move us toward a better Anchorage, and for the Assembly to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, all that remains to be done is to carefully choose wording for the so-called "ministerial exception." This section, 10 B of the proposed ordinance AO 2015-96 S, protects the religious liberties of faith-based organizations, including places of worship, religious schools, and religious service organizations. We believe this protection is important, and must be carefully considered.

There are "purists" on both sides of this issue. Some advocates of equality wish to prevent any discrimination, based on race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin, marital status, age, or physical or mental disability, even within religious organizations. They have proposed the ministerial exception only apply very narrowly to those whose "primary duties consist of" teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, religious governance, supervision of a religious community, supervision of persons teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship.

In response, faith leaders have pointed out that very few employees of religious organizations, including most pastors, would meet the strict definition of "primary duties." A busy pastor may actually spend more time visiting the sick, or even making arrangements for the church parking lot to be plowed, than in the "primary duties" of "teaching or spreading religious doctrine."

On the other side of the divide are those groups that have historically opposed any effort to provide for nondiscrimination of our neighbors who are gay, lesbian, or transgender. They have argued that the wording of section 10 B should be to exempt from nondiscrimination protections any employee whose duties "include" teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, religious governance, supervision of a religious community, supervision of persons teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship.

It is our considered belief that such wording ("include") goes well beyond what is necessary to protect the legitimate religious freedoms of faith-based organizations. Such a wording would permit, and indeed sanction, discrimination in any of the above categories (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) for any employee of a religious institution whose job duties were rewritten to "include," for example, mandatory participation in a nominal prayer at the beginning of a work shift. It is our shared belief, as religious leaders, that there is no legitimate religious liberty claim that should exempt workers such as file clerks, janitors, maintenance personnel, or others whose work is largely of a nonreligious or nonministerial nature. These citizens should not be denied the same protections afforded other citizens simply because they work for a religious employer.

As faith leaders of many different Christian traditions and denominations, we believe the appropriate standard to use here is the word "substantial." An employee of a religious organization whose "substantial" duties include teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, religious governance, supervision of a religious community, supervision of persons teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship, should qualify for the "ministerial exception." We believe this will cover not only pastors, but also counselors who work within a well-established religious or doctrinal framework, and teachers in religious schools who teach math or science in addition to teaching religious coursework or doctrine. It would protect the rights of religious organizations to require adherence to doctrinal standards in any employment position whose duties are substantially related to the furthering of the religious content or mission of the organization.

Moreover, the use of the compromise language "substantial" would enable us to move forward as the community of Anchorage in a healthy and united way. It will, no doubt, be unacceptable to those on the extremes of left or right, or to those whose own interests are furthered by prolonging what is now a 40-year-long cause for pain, discrimination, and division within our city.

In the past six years since that "summer of hate," we have seen our city's understanding of the moral necessity of equality under the law for our gay, lesbian, and transgender neighbors, grow and solidify into the mainstream belief it is today. Businesses, community organizations, and churches alike have been outspoken in their support for nondiscrimination.

It is time to move beyond our broken past, and to bind up our city's wounds. It is time to compromise with one another, respect one another's differences, and establish equal protection for all, while simultaneously respecting and protecting the legitimate claims of religious organizations whose doctrines differ from the view of the majority.

We believe that AO 2015-96 S, with the amended change to "substantial duties", achieves this balance in the pursuit of the common good.

The Rev. Michael Burke is rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Anchorage. He wrote this commentary with fellow members of the Steering Committee for Christians for Equality, the Rev. Martin Eldred, the Rev. Matthew Schultz, Nora Ortiz Frederick and Candace Bell. Christians for Equality is an interfaith group of clergy and lay leaders who describe their work as raising up "a faithful voice for justice, peace and equality rooted in the Hebrew Prophets and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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