Fairbanks City Council passes contentious non-discrimination ordinance

Fairbanks citizens line up to sign up for public testimony on the proposed Equal Rights Ordinance. (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Fairbanks now has a law that prohibits discrimination in businesses, rentals and employment based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The Fairbanks City Council passed the non-discrimination ordinance Monday night after two hours of public hearing and weeks of work sessions.

About 200 people lined up in the hallway of the council chambers to testify at the public hearing on Ordinance 6093. About 40 got the chance. Many were concerned about religious rights or burdens on employers.

The ordinance was introduced in December, and was a simple mirror of state and federal civil rights law with clauses about race, color, age, religion, sex, family status and sexual orientation. But it became larger when stakeholder groups and churches took over public comment about transgender rights.

After a three-hour public hearing on December 10th, the council postponed the ordinance. In January and February, the council held eight separate work sessions to talk with employee-relations, housing and legal experts.

To quell fears of religious activists, the Council worked up clauses to exempt churches and religious organizations. At Monday night’s meeting, two proposed amendments were combined, and the council voted 5 to 1 to add the exception. Council member Shoshana Kuhn objected.

“I’ll make it known, I’m the one who asked for all religious stuff out. So I’m compromising in having this discussion,” Kuhn said. “But that is the spirit of Fairbanks, right?”

Another sticking point not resolved at the work sessions was how large an employer might be to be exempt from the law. The original ordinance would allow businesses with 15 or fewer workers to discriminate.

In citizen testimony, Josh Dwyer said changing that would hurt small businesses.

“I am opposed to any changes under the definition of employer, changing it from 15 to four or one,” Dwyer said. “This would heavily burden local communities that would feel the weight of this ordinance.”

Council member David Pruhs says he would not approve the ordinance unless the number stayed at 15 or fewer employees.

“This is a big one – whether I’m in or out,” Pruhs said.

Pruhs said he was ready to vote on the employer-with-15-workers-exemption back at the December 10th meeting, and asked Council member Kathryn Ottersten what had changed since then.

“When we gathered letters and letters, we’ve gathered statements from people that they’d lost their jobs,” Ottersten said. “And they lost their jobs from smaller than fifteen employees.”

The council settled on the number of four employees as the size of businesses that would be exempt from the law. Pruhs voted with the majority on that amendment. Council member Jerry Cleworth did not.

And when it came time to vote on the ordinance as a whole, David Pruhs and Jerry Cleworth dissented. The ordinance passed 4 to 2.