Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans says the city's equal rights law should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
In an ordinance he introduced Thursday, Evans could be rekindling a debate that has polarized the community in recent years. The ordinance would make it illegal in Anchorage to discriminate against any person based on sexual orientation or gender in employment, public accommodations and housing.
But unlike similar legislation in the past, Evans' measure also includes religious-based exemptions for individuals and institutions. Some socially conservative religious leaders have objected to previous efforts to expand equal rights protections to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, though other churches and synagogues actively supported those measures without a religious exemption.
"The goal of this balanced approach is to make Anchorage a model of how a city can sensibly legislate the contentious and fractional boundaries which exist between the rights of various groups," Evans said in a statement.
"In the final analysis, we share not only a city, but a community, and we must commit to the effort to find common ground -- an effort that is a continuation of our more than 200-year-old mandate."
The measure would also change some practices of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission to make it more "efficient and effective" for employers to defend against discrimination charges, Evans said.
Evans' measure has the support of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, city spokesman Myer Hutchinson said in an email Thursday. Legislation to add protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people was among the recommendations in Berkowitz's transition team report.
Drew Phoenix, executive director of Identity Inc., the largest LGBT advocacy organization in Anchorage, said Thursday his organization was "extremely excited" about the measure. He said Evans had invited him and other members of the organization to review the legislation in advance.
"I think what Mr. Evans is trying to do, and I think he's done it well, is assuage any discomfort, fear around two areas -- religious liberties, and public safety as it has to do with public accommodations," Phoenix said.
He added: "I have no doubt it's going to pass."
But dissent was quick to spring up among other LGBT advocates. Caitlin Shortell, one the attorneys who represented plaintiffs in the case that struck down Alaska's same-sex marriage ban, said in a phone interview the measure's religious exemptions further enshrine inequality, and could open up the city to a legal challenge.
"It's dangerous and problematic to just give a little bit of equality," Shortell said. She said she's also concerned about a provision that could allow employers to require "a consistent gender presentation in the workplace."
This is the second time in six years Anchorage has weighed nondiscrimination legislation. In 2009, former Mayor Dan Sullivan vetoed a measure that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2012, Anchorage voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 5, which would have added legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people.
The Rev. Jerry Prevo of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, a vocal opponent of the past legislation, said Thursday his legal team hadn't yet reviewed Evans' measure. Prevo said his institution generally wants to see religious-based exemptions for individuals and institutions.
"Our concern would be exemptions for religious schools, churches, individuals and small business owners," Prevo said. He also said the exemptions should apply to rental housing.
Evans' measure includes three religious exemptions. The first, religious preference, refers to the ability for religious institutions, including schools, to "limit, select or give preferential treatment in employment, admissions, accommodations, advantages, facilities, benefits, or services, to persons of the same religion or denomination" to promote religious principles. The second exemption refers to an exemption for ministers or those who teach or spread religious doctrine.
A third exemption, under the heading "religious conscience exemption," states "except as a condition of a pre-existing employment or contractual relationship, no person, employer or operator of a public accommodation shall be compelled to make any communication in support of, or be compelled to appear at any ceremony, ritual, or observance that is in conflict with a sincerely held and demonstrable religious belief of that person, employer or operator."
Prevo referenced a lawsuit against a baker in Colorado who was sued for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. On Thursday, an appeals court ruled the baker had violated the state's nondiscrimination law. Prevo said his organization wants to avoid that type of situation.
Messages left for Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action and a key organizer in the successful effort to defeat the 2012 ballot proposition, were not returned.
Evans was elected in 2014 to represent South Anchorage on the Assembly. He's a partner in an Anchorage law firm and former chair of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has in recent years encouraged Anchorage businesses to promote inclusive corporate policies for LGBT people.
Evans said in an interview some elements of his measure have few models elsewhere, such as the "religious conscience" provision. He also said, as one of the more conservative members of the Assembly, he doesn't want the issue to be seen as partisan. He said the goal was to find a balance.
"I don't think people should be discriminated against in employment or other areas because of any immutable characteristic," Evans said. "At the same time I recognize there are people who have a different viewpoint, often religiously based viewpoint, that I think our society should protect as well."
Evans' measure will be formally introduced at the Aug. 25 Anchorage Assembly meeting. A public hearing is slated for Sept. 15.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing