JUNEAU — Legislation was introduced in the Alaska House this week to ban discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, making specific reference to prohibiting that discrimination in housing.
The legislation — similar to measures that have gone before each state legislature since 2011 — was introduced several days after the Daily News and ProPublica reported that the state’s policy banning discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in most areas was quietly dropped last year on advice of the attorney general. But the bill’s supporters say they have been working on these efforts for months.
“The first thing I will say is that this bill is not a social issue in the same way that child care is not ‘a mommy issue,’ ” said Jennie Armstrong, an Anchorage Democrat who identifies as LGBTQ. She said she would work to gain support from a bipartisan group of legislators and business and faith groups to show that LGBTQ discrimination is a widespread issue across Alaska.
“There are people emailing me who are telling me they don’t feel safe,” she said. “It is important that all Alaskans feel safe.”
Twenty-three states have laws to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that anti-discrimination protections based on a person’s sex also extend to sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has interpreted that decision to extend to federal housing.
The Alaska State Commission for Human Rights — the state’s civil rights agency — in 2021 extended LGBTQ protections to housing, government practices, finance and “public accommodation” until Attorney General Treg Taylor advised last August that its investigations should be limited to LGBTQ discrimination complaints in the workplace. According to Taylor, the Legislature needs to pass a law to make sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class.
Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, has been the lead sponsor for similar legislation each year since being elected in 2012. Those measures have never passed either legislative chamber. But Armstrong said it could be different this year because of the number of new faces in the Capitol. The freshman class of state legislators is the largest since 2003. Seventeen members of the 40-seat House are brand-new to the Alaska Capitol.
Fourteen Democrats and independents in the 40-seat House signed on to sponsor Armstrong’s bill when it was introduced Wednesday, including three members of the Bush Caucus who serve in the Republican-led majority. None of the 21 House Republicans sponsored the bill. But Wasilla Republican Jesse Sumner did signal that he could potentially support it.
Sumner chairs the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which will be the first committee to hear the legislation on Wednesday. He said that he wants to hear the bill before making a judgment, but that he would likely support it as a “statutory fix” for how the human rights commission operates.
Previous efforts to pass similar legislation have met strong opposition from right-wing legislators and Christian conservative groups.
Jim Minnery, president of the Alaska Family Council, has vehemently opposed previous legislative efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity as special protected categories under Alaska’s anti-discrimination law, and said he would again. He alerted Taylor last year that the human rights commission was investigating cases based on those categories without legislation passing.
The Alaska Family Council believes anti-discrimination measures against LGBTQ people threaten religious liberty, privacy rights and freedom of expression. Dozens of people submitted form letters written by that group opposing a previous bill in 2022. They mentioned how the measure could compel women’s shelters to admit transgender women statewide, which the Alaska Family Council helped to successfully lobby against at an Anchorage faith-based shelter.
If the measure advances, it would be heard in the House Judiciary Committee. Conservative Homer Republican Sarah Vance, who chairs that committee, has opposed anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination efforts in the past and tried to amend previous bills to include civil protections for “preborn” Alaskans. Vance said Friday that there are already anti-discrimination protections in place based on sex. “Why doesn’t that work?” she asked.
In the Senate, Fairbanks Democrat Scott Kawasaki said that he would soon be introducing an anti-LGBTQ discrimination bill after introducing a similar measure in the past.
The question of whether there should be protections for LGBTQ people has been a hot-button issue in Fairbanks. Former Mayor Jim Matherly, who ran against Kawasaki in the last election, vetoed an ordinance approved by the city council in 2019 that extended anti-LGBTQ discrimination protections for employment, housing and public accommodations.
The bipartisan Senate majority caucus — with nine Republicans and eight Democrats — formed partly on the basis that it would not spend time debating divisive social issues that do not have a strong chance of passing into law. Kawasaki said part of his current discussions with his Senate colleagues is whether an anti-LGBTQ discrimination measure would qualify as a divisive social issue.