Three years ago, Proposition 5, which would have created LGBT nondiscrimination protections, failed to pass in Anchorage, Alaska. The defeat followed a very ugly campaign that demonized LGBT people with warnings of “tranvestites who want to work with toddlers” and men sneaking into women’s locker rooms. Now, a member of the city’s Assembly says that he wants to pass those protections into law — or so he claims.
Anchorage Assembly member Bill Evans has proposed an expansion to the city’s equal rights law to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the protected classes, but there’s a catch. His bill has a gaping exemption that will allow religion to continue to justify anti-LGBT discrimination.
Under “religious exemptions,” which already exist for religious organizations in the city’s civil rights code in a similar limited fashion to federal law, Evans suggests creating two new exemptions:
Ministerial exemption: This chapter shall not apply with respect to the employment of individuals whose primary duties consist of teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, religious governance, supervision of a religious order, supervision of persons teaching or spreading religious doctrine or belief, or supervision or participation in religious ritual or worship.
Religious conscience exemption: 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.
The first provision is in some ways redundant with a Supreme Court decision excluding religious ministers from civil rights laws. This is a fairly underdeveloped area of the law, however, so Evans’ language may make it easier for religious schools to discriminate against gay teachers.
The second provision, however, blatantly licenses discrimination by religious individuals. Conservatives have regularly claimed that wedding vendors shouldn’t have to serve same-sex couples because it constitutes “participation” in the wedding and an “artistic” endorsement of it that violates their freedoms of religion and speech. “Communication in support of” seems intended to allow for just that kind of legalized discrimination.
Evans’ own comments speak to that intention. “”I don’t think people should be discriminated against in employment or other areas because of any immutable characteristic,” he told Alaska Dispatch News. “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.” The Rev. Jerry Prevo, a local pastor who has been a vocal opponent of past LGBT protections, specifically said he wants to make sure bakeries can still refuse to serve same-sex weddings.
Evans said that he borrowed the religious conscience provision from elsewhere, and that may refer to the recent nondiscrimination protections passed in Utah. The Utah compromise, however, was unique because religious exemptions already existed under state law, for other civil rights protections. Thus, the carveouts were not unique to LGBT people, but were the same as they were for race, sex, and other classes.
In this proposal, Evans is actually doing the opposite in quite a problematic way. He’s trying to create new exemptions specifically to accommodate the addition of LGBT protections. Moreover, he’s not even qualifying them as LGBT-specific, so all of Anchorage’s civil rights protections would be weakened as a result. Refusing to serve an interracial marriage would hypothetically be just as shielded as refusing to serve a same-sex marriage.
A public hearing on the ordinance is slated for September 15.