Finding room for religious rights and LGBT rights to coexist in Anchorage

Jim Minnery's quick mind and political skill brought his side a long way in the last phase of Anchorage's 40-year war over LGBT rights, but now religious conservatives are fighting a defensive retreat.

After the Anchorage Assembly passed its equal rights ordinance last fall, Minnery, director of the Alaska Family Council, vowed to overturn it with a ballot initiative, the kind of vote conservatives won repeatedly over the years. But the initiative never materialized and now Minnery is talking instead about asking voters next year to tweak the ordinance with more exceptions for religious liberty.

A poll in February showed a strong majority of Anchorage residents support the new law. The tables have turned. Once a majority denied the LGBT minority protection against discrimination. Now Minnery's new minority will ask a majority to affirm what it perceives as religious rights.

I don't think fundamental rights should ever be a question for majority vote. The majority needs no protection. Liberty is for individuals. So I sat down with Minnery at a coffee shop to find out what rights he feels are at risk.

We share an Anchorage background. We both won the lottery by being raised here, a place of wealth, health and growth with no barriers for straight, white men. We grew up in religious families — mine Episcopalian and Minnery's Catholic — and both formed our own beliefs as young adults. After college, Minnery came back from bumming around in Southeast Asia as a Protestant, looking for his own path to spiritual truth.

Minnery tried a career in business, but it didn't mean enough to him, so he went back to school to become a nonprofit administrator. He worked for Alaska Legal Services, raising money from conservative law firms for an organization providing legal representation to the poor. He also worked for the Red Cross.

He moved into conservative social issues through a cousin's connection to Jim Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Minnery started the Alaska Family Council in 2007 as part of the 37-state Family Policy Alliance. Besides him, the group has two part-time employees. He is married with four children. His wife's work in business allows Minnery to do his nonprofit work.


He wouldn't say where he goes to church, to protect his pastor. Similarly, the gay former judge I wrote about in my last column didn't want his husband's name mentioned.

Judge Victor Carlson's career was destroyed because he is gay. Minnery has never faced discrimination like that, and he knows it, but he is still wary.

"A lot of people will say it's happening now, that Christians are being marginalized, and they're feeling it, probably more than at a lot of different times in history," Minnery said. "Although I love to tell people, too, when they talk about, 'We've got to get off the grid and raise chickens and not pay taxes.' No, we're not being hung upside down on crosses, like they did back in Rome, and somehow the church flourished then to the point that it grew and spread across the world. So put it in perspective, right?

"What I guess I would like to see in our city is good, healthy disagreement without marginalizing," he said.

The national debate about wedding cakes is really about speech. We're fighting out whether anti-LGBT views will remain socially acceptable. This matters. Laws don't stop racism, but as racist views are stigmatized they lose some of their ability to do harm. Making it illegal for a wedding photographer to turn down a gay client takes away some of the legitimacy of the anti-LGBT point of view.

Eventually, such a social change could protect someone like Carlson from being hounded off the bench.

When I made this point to Minnery and to Caitlin Shortell, the brilliant attorney who helped write the new ordinance (and who identifies as queer), both agreed. That is where the fight is going.

Minnery can reel off endless hypothetical examples of perceived injustices that could occur without additional religious exemptions. Catholic agencies in several cities stopped offering adoption services due to nondiscrimination laws. Minnery says anti-LGBT religious believers could lose the ability to be relationship counselors under the new ordinance.

"How in the world can you see us living in a pluralistic society if you can't even be a Christian and be a counselor, or, if you are going to be a Christian, you have to actually counsel someone on how to improve their relationship when you don't even think they should be in their relationship?" he said.

But I would ask who is really being discriminated against in that situation, the counselor who judges the same-sex couple and refuses service, or the couple who needs help and is denied? The current state of the law is far from disadvantaging people like Minnery. In much of the country including Alaska, except Anchorage, a same-sex couple who can legally marry can also be legally fired, kicked out of housing and refused service in a restaurant.

The ongoing struggle over these issues will eventually draw a line between equality and religious liberty. I expect that line to look something like the status of women a century into their movement for equality.

Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have fundamentalist branches that place women in inferior roles. They can do that, and espouse it, but outside church they cannot legally discriminate against women in jobs, housing or public accommodations. Women are still hurt, degraded and ignored in our society, but norms are slowly changing.

Laws for women's equality are simple, without religious exceptions for bakers and the like. For LGBT people, Minnery wants something less, which he says comes from truths endorsed by Christ.

"He literally said, 'I am God' on countless occasions, and, 'There is one way to get to the Father, and that's through me,'" Minnery said. "My wife and I, that was a journey we took together, as we were building the foundations of our faith."

Society should have room for Minnery's journey. But he shouldn't expect his truths to apply to anyone else.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.