Anyone expecting a quick discussion and vote among Assembly Members was sorely disappointed. In spite of an effort to keep debate to an hour, the body extended discussion until the cusp of midnight–with a chunk of that time devoted to complaints the process on such a controversial measure was being rushed.
But in the end, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to amend the municipality’s rules on discrimination. The measure’s original sponsor, Assembly Member Bill Evans, says in spite of dire predictions by opponents, it’s a modest update to laws that are already on the books.
“It expands our notions of equality to include people based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. It basically says that those are issues that it’s just not an employers business to get into. And that they just can’t be discriminated on that basis. It more or less just expands the path of civil rights we’ve been on for decades.”
Opposition to the bill came primarily from two socially conservative Assembly Members from the Eagle River Chugiak area, Amy Demboski and Bill Starr, both of whom say it infringes on residents’ religious and free speech rights. Much of the audience was wearing red–a sign of opposition to the measure, called for by a coalition of conservative faith groups. After hours of impassioned testimony that often addressed the crowd instead of fellow Assembly Members, Starr left his seat behind the dais to speak from the floor as a citizen rather than official.
“I buy into that Bible, that book, that says homosexuality and that type of deviant behavior is wrong.”
He then slipped on a red vest before receiving the night’s only standing ovation.
“And I’ll tell you what red is–somebody said ‘well what what are you wearing red for?’ It’s the blood of Jesus Christ folks, that’s what it represents.” Fade applause under quickly.
But conservatives lost almost every battle within an effort cast as a larger war. Many of the 17 amendments up for discussion were different ways to exempt religious institutions and believers from the ordinance’s expanded protections. That included topics that are lightning rods in the debate over sexuality and gender identity, like seeking to ensure churches don’t have to rent spaces to groups they find morally objectionable, and giving business owners the power to regulate bathrooms, which Starr recommended administering through a questionnaire.
All such amendments failed. The only meaningful change adopted at the meeting was a decision that the contentious issue of “ministerial exemptions” would defer to Supreme Court precedent. That Federal standard now determines when religious institutions are protected in hiring decisions.
Demboski, who vocally opposed an equal rights ordinance during her run for mayor this spring, says Anchorage voters made their will clear in a 2012 ballot measure. She expects a similar initiative will bring the matter back to a referendum vote this coming April.
“This is absolutely the tyranny of the liberal Assembly. I don’t think the majority of Alaskans will agree with that policy.”
But other Assembly Members say when it comes to civil rights there’s a long tradition of the legislative branch expanding legal protections in advance of popular opinion. And for many members of the LGBTQ community, like Drew Phoenix of the advocacy group Identity, the measure recognizes problems they’ve struggled with for years.
“I feel like a weight has been removed, because as a trans-gender man I haven’t been protected. So when I go into a restaurant, when I go into the locker-room, when I apply for a job or a rental–I can be denied, and have been.”
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz applauded the decision after the measure passed by a veto-proof 9-to-2 vote.