Anchorage settles case on transgender access to women’s shelter

Anchorage. (Flickr photo by Daniel Hoherd)

The Municipality of Anchorage is settling a lawsuit with a faith-based women’s shelter that fought the city for the right to bar transgender women from staying overnight.

The case involved a transgender woman the Hope Center turned away in 2018. The woman filed a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Right’s Commission, which began investigating whether the Hope Center had violated the city’s equal protection law, which bars discriminating against a person based on, among other categories, their gender expression. The Hope Center filed a complaint in U.S. District Court claiming the faith-based non-profit’s constitutional rights were being violated.

“It’s a great victory. Everyone should be free to live and serve others according to their faith, without the fear of unjust government punishment,” said Ryan Tucker, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based legal non-profit that takes on cases across the country involving religious freedom issues.

Among other services, the Hope Center offers overnight shelter for women. In court filings, the plaintiffs say that the organization has a legal right to set policies on who can stay. For example, they have to be adults, they must be clean and sober. And, “Because of its religious beliefs and its limited space, Hope Center accepts only persons who were determined to be female at birth into its overnight shelter.”

According to the ADF, the Hope Center should not have been subject to a strict application of the city’s equal protection ordinance.

“There were actually exemptions built into the local ordinance that made clear that the Hope Center was not subject to the ordinance,” Tucker said. “So there was this misapplication that continued to be made, again, forcing us to file the lawsuit.”

The settlement entails the Municipality of Anchorage paying $100,000 to cover the Hope Center’s legal expenses. It also means the shelter can continue its policy of offering overnight spaces only to women “determined to be females at birth.”

From the Municipality of Anchorage’s perspective, much of the legal dispute centers around whether non-profit shelters fall under “public accommodations” in the city’s code. That is, “any business or professional activity that is open to, accepts or solicits the patronage of, or caters or offers goods or services to the general public, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all persons.”

According to Municipal Attorney Rebecca Windt Pearson, the city opted to settle because the court signaled it didn’t favor their interpretation, and the city wanted to avoid a costly legal fight.

“The court indicated,” Windt Pearson said, “that we were unlikely to prevail on that. So we saw that as an argument entirely about the nature of what is and is not a public accommodation.”

The settlement is a consent decree, and according to Windt Pearson it only applies to the Downtown Hope Center, but could open the door to similar arrangements with other organizations in the future.