Anchorage attorney faces discrimination complaint while defending faith-based homeless shelter

Published: Jul. 9, 2018 at 7:08 PM AKDT
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An Anchorage attorney has been served with a discrimination complaint while defending a faith-based Anchorage homeless shelter from its own discrimination complaint.

The case began in January when a transgender woman was turned away from a homeless shelter in downtown Anchorage. In recent months it’s evolved into a heated dispute between attorneys and the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, leading to allegations that an attorney is not being allowed to adequately represent his client.

The underlying case

Transgender woman Samantha Coyle filed a complaint with the AERC Feb. 1 against the Downtown Hope Center claiming that she was refused entry to the shelter based on her gender identity.

A municipal ordinance says it is illegal for public accommodations to discriminate against someone based on gender identity among other categories like race, age and sexuality.

Kevin Clarkson, an attorney with Brena, Bell and Clarkson, gave a brief to the AERC where he argued as a private faith-based facility, the shelter is not subject to discrimination laws on public accommodations.

Secondly, Clarkson argued that first amendment protections on religious freedom allow the shelter to refuse entry to a so-called “biological male” in a shelter for abused and battered women.

Finally, Laurie claims that Coyle had been intoxicated when she arrived which would be in breach of the shelter’s rules on sobriety.

The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission is hearing the complaint but Pamela Basler, the executive director of the commission, explained that she can’t confirm or deny any aspects of the case due to a municipal statute that demands confidentiality.

The complaint against Clarkson

On May 15, Basler filed a complaint of discrimination against Clarkson, alleging that he had “been identified as the source of statements and information, published in various printed media sources, which implied or stated that transgender individuals would not be allowed to be “sheltered” at the Downtown Soup Kitchen Hope Center.”

In a sworn affidavit, Clarkson denies having any business connection with the Hope Center and he argues that he never solicited media attention while representing his client only that he responded to questions from reporters.

The complaint against Clarkson has since been picked up by First Liberty Institute, a law firm with offices in Dallas that specializes in religious liberty cases.

“You could file brief with a court, or in this case a commission, trying to advocate on legal grounds and then members of the media quote it and then suddenly you’re going to be charged as well,” said Hiram Sasser, an attorney from First Liberty.

Sasser says clients deserve legal representation, no matter what they’re charged with, and fears a precedent could be set against a faith-based organization like the Downtown Hope Center by trying to intimidate an attorney.

It's unclear exactly what penalty Clarkson could face if found guilty. Basler explains that the commission typically tries to end disputes through settlements and no case in the last 7 years has ended with a public hearing.

Attorneys for Clarkson filed to a motion to dismiss the case July 5 and a discovery conference was held Monday between the Equality Commission and two local attorneys.

One of Clarkson’s attorneys said the case is no closer to being resolved.