Women’s shelter challenges Anchorage’s non-discrimination law

Published: Sep. 13, 2018 at 7:38 PM AKDT
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The Hope Center, a faith-based non-profit that operates as the Downtown Soup Kitchen, has filed a religious freedom lawsuit in federal court against the City of Anchorage, the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and the commission’s executive director.

It’s the latest development in a case that began in January when the Hope Center twice denied shelter services to a transgender woman, who later filed a discrimination complaint against the shelter.

The issue comes on the heels of a somewhat similar, higher-profile case in Colorado in which a cake baker who’d refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple found himself at odds with Colorado’s Equal Rights Commission.

This summer, Jack Phillips prevailed in his case against the Colorado commission before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court found that the commission was hostile to Phillips’ Christian faith during its proceedings. The court did not address whether Phillips had the right to deny his services — only that he hadn’t been treated fairly by the commission, which is tasked with upholding the state’s non-discrimination laws.

Unfair treatment by an equal rights commission is one of the claims made by the Downtown Soup Commission. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a faith-based legal firm based in Arizona, represented Phillips and is now also representing the soup kitchen.

Downtown Soup Kitchen, Alliance Defending Freedom, Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and the commission’s executive director declined comment. All cited the pending equal rights investigations and the state and federal court actions.

Through a city attorney handling the case, the Municipality of Anchorage said that the city is still reviewing the federal lawsuit, adding that it thought the action may be premature since the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission’s work on the matter is incomplete.

The lack of resolution is one of the complaints lodged by the Downtown Soup Kitchen, which argues the commission has dragged its feet on a meritless accusation.

The Soup Kitchen and ADF have asked the court to force the commission to back off.

They are also challenging the constitutionality of the city’s non-discrimination law, which expanded in 2015 to include sexual orientation and gender as protected classes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified ADF as an ant-LGBT hate group, citing a long and far-reaching history by the organization of trying to deny equal rights in the name of religious freedom

“What they are doing is trying to use their own purported religious beliefs to impose them on others and kick LGBT people out from spaces, from schools, from bakeries and apparently in now in Anchorage, also from shelters,” David Dinielli, Deputy Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center told KTUU. “In our most vulnerable moments they think that their right to hate should trump our right to live. This is not the Alaska way. This is not the Anchorage way.”

“You are not a hate group,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session told ADF during his keynote speech at the group’s religious freedom summit held on Aug. 8. “They (SPLC) have used this designation as a weapon and they have wielded it against conservative organizations that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak their conscience. They use it to bully and intimidate groups like yours which fight for the religious freedom, the civil rights, and the constitutional rights of others,” Sessions said.

The non-discrimination law passed in 2015 had fewer religious protections in it than originally proposed according to Bill Evans, an attorney and former assembly member who helped craft the ordinance.

“The original ordinance that I proposed tried to balance the competing rights between transgender persons and the religious community,” Evans said. “It tried to establish which rights we’re going to recognize and where that line would be between each individuals’ rights. That was rejected pretty soundly by everybody on the left and on the right.”

Alaska is one of more than a dozen states in which ADF has brought a religious freedom dispute to court.

“The ability to believe what you believe and to practice your religion is one of our core fundamental rights," Casey Reynolds, Communications Director for ACLU Alaska, told KTUU. "But you have to draw the line at which this is harming other people and society, and that is really what this is about.”

As with Colorado cake baker Jack Phillips, the ADF argues that the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has been unfair. It claims the commission has harassed and been hostile to the center, and has overstepped its authority.

The federal lawsuit asks the court to get the commission to end its investigation and back off.

It also challenges the constitutionality of prohibiting the Downtown Soup Kitchen from prohibiting transgender women. According to the shelter’s policies, “guests must be biological females, meaning they were born with, and currently have, only anatomical and genetic characteristics of a woman.“

Yet posing that question to a potential client, is itself a problem, said Dinielli.

“The use of the phrase biological male or female is both without meaning and offensive. People who are transgender are the gender that they are. And there is a lot of thought that that is a result of their biology,” he said.

Dinielli also disputes the Hope Center and Downtown Soup Kitchen’s claim that having “biological men” sleep next to women is a safety issue.

“It would not only be dangerous and against common sense, but would violate the Hope Center’s sincerely held religious beliefs to admit biological men into its shelter and allow them to sleep side by side and disrobe next to women, some of whom have been assaulted by men and fear for their safety,” ADF wrote in its federal complaint against the City of Anchorage and the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission.

“There is simply no evidence that transgender people are more of a threat to anyone whether that be in bathrooms, locker rooms or homeless shelters. In fact we know transgender people are among the most, if not the most likely to be targeted for abuse, sexual abuse and physical abuse,” Dinielli said.

Since the non-discrimination law’s expansion in 2015, the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission has received four complaints based on gender identity and 14 complaints based on sexual orientation, according to city attorney’s office.

In its lawsuit, the Downtown Soup Kitchen claims to operate the Hope Center women’s shelter “exclusively on a charitable basis.”

Yet some money does come from public sources – $40,000-$45,000 of pass-through money from a Housing and Urban Development grant helps it assist Catholic Social Services with overflow shelter housing. It’s also scheduled to receive another $72,000 in HUD money for overflow housing for the upcoming winter season.

The city plans to file its response to the ADF / Soup Kitchen lawsuit later this month.