UPDATE: Locals divided on outcome of Hope Center religious freedom lawsuit
Some are calling it a victory for homeless and abused women in Anchorage; others, a loss for transgender rights and anti-discrimination laws. Either way, when Anchorage dropped its complaint against the Downtown Hope Center for denying services to a transgender woman, it marked the end of a long ideological battle in the city.
The Municipality’s Anchorage Equal Rights Commission settled with the Downtown Hope Center. The agreement, filed Sept. 18, awards the Downtown Hope Center $100,000 worth of legal fees and $1 in damages. Women currently staying at the shelter say they're relieved.
"I've heard on occasion some of the women talk about how they're thankful that men are not allowed in there ... it's just all women," shelter resident Margaret Jokanan said. "I'm thankful they're still open. I don't like to see people coming in and causing problems."
While guests at the Hope Center say they're resting easier, there are differing perspectives among those with ties to the faith-based community about what the outcome of this case means.
"It's always been my experience that the staff down at the soup kitchen behave with compassion and kindness, and they do their best to be of service to everybody," Rev. Matthew Schultz with First Presbyterian Church said. "Personally, I believe if one is to consider themselves a Christian -- a person of faith -- they have to extend their charitable actions to everybody, regardless of gender."
Jim Minnery with the Alaska Family Council, which partners with the religious community to strengthen family relationships, believes vulnerable women should not be subject to anti-discrimination rules that could allow all biological men to stay at the Hope Center.
"I think that women deserve -- especially those who are in a shelter, all of them having been abused by men primarily -- to have that privacy," Minnery said.
In dropping the case, the Municipality conceded to the shelter's claim that it's not technically an operator of a public accommodation, which would have required it to comply with anti-discrimination regulations. However, Municipal Attorney Becky Windt Pearson says Municipal Code makes it clear that
receiving city dollars is bound by anti-discrimination regulations, and they're going to look at potential legislative solutions to enforce that.
The Municipality’s Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has settled with the Downtown Hope Center after a nearly two-year-long battle over religious liberty and the rights of transgender women.
The agreement, filed Sept. 18, awards the Downtown Hope Center $100,000 worth of legal fees and $1 in damages.
The case drew the attention of Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based legal ministry. Early in the saga, which began as a discrimination complaint, Kevin Clarkson served as the center's counsel, but withdrew after his appointment as the state's attorney general.
The case began with a Feb. 2018 complaint to the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission in which a transgender woman named as Jessie Doe alleged that she had been refused entry at the Hope Center over her gender identity. According to the Hope Center, the woman, later revealed to be
had asked for entry while inebriated and after hours.
The incident gave rise to questions about whether Coyle was refused entry because of substance use, her behavior, or her sex. While the Equal Rights Commission investigated if discrimination had occurred, the center went on the offensive. The center went to court to ask that the city be barred from enforcing anti-discrimination laws against the center, and to seek clarity on the religious freedom issue. It argued it was exempt from the city's anti-discrimination laws due to sincerely-held religious beliefs.
The result was the Hope Center's federal lawsuit
On Aug. 9, a U.S. District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop the municipality from enforcing its non-discrimination code, and allowing the Hope Center to post its gender admission policies.
More recently, in late August, the commission closed it's discrimination investigation.
Now, the city has agreed to settle. The municipality agreed to the Hope Center’s claim that it is not an “owner or operator of a public accommodation” which would require it to comply with the city’s non-discrimination ordinance that prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on gender identity.
That will allow the Hope Center to set its policies about whom it admits. The Hope Center had argued that the First Amendment allowed it to set its gender admission policies based on gender at birth - not gender identity.