Religious liberty advocates worry that Anchorage area churches, faith-based organizations and business owners could soon be forced to violate deeply held religious beliefs regarding the issue of homosexuality if a ballot initiative is approved of by voters on April 3.
Proposition 5 aims to establish “sexual orientation” and “transgender identity” as protected classes under Anchorage’s current nondiscrimination code.
One Anchorage, a coalition of homosexual rights advocates, is pushing the initiative and has raised more than $95,000 for the campaign, including a $25,000 donation from Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. The group is prepared to launch a broad publicity campaign has already purchased $25,000 in television and radio ads.
Opponents to the initiative, though, are concerned that the proposed law could require faith-based schools, private businesses and area churches to employ openly homosexual and transgender employees, while also forcing service companies and rental organizations to promote and facilitate causes and events which are contrary to their moral beliefs.
According to city code, refusal to abide by the proposed law could result in a $500 fine, 30 days in jail, or both.
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY CONCERNS
Homosexual rights activists argue that churches are sufficiently protected through the current religious exemption in the city code, which they claim would protect bona fide faith-based organizations from discrimination charges based on “sexual orientation” and “transgender identity.”
In an interview with the Catholic Anchor, One Anchorage spokesman Trevor Storrs noted that the existing religious exemption does not explicitly state that faith-based groups must follow the nondiscrimination law with regards to sexual orientation and transgender identity, and therefore he believes religious groups would be exempt from the proposed law.
But religious liberty advocates take no solace in the current religious exemption. They point out that the exemption never states that religious groups are protected from discrimination charges based on sexual orientation and transgender identity.
“The religious exemption doesn’t protect anybody, including religious organizations,” Jim Minnery, president of Alaska Family Action, told the Catholic Anchor. Minnery’s group is organizing opposition to the initiative under the ballot group “Protect Your Rights.”
Attorney Bob Flint, who practiced law for 46 years in Anchorage before recently retiring also finds the religious exemption insufficient to protect religious liberties.
Flint is a founding member of the Saint Thomas More Society in Anchorage, a group of lawyers and judges who regularly meet to discuss the interplay between religion and the public square.
In an interview with the Catholic Anchor he said the current religious exemption only allows religious groups to discriminate on the basis of faith — meaning they may hire people of the same religion but only if the church can show that the position is specifically geared to teaching the faith. Otherwise, there is no exemption for churches, Flint said.
Additionally, he noted that the exemption offers virtually no protection if a person engaged in homosexual or transgender behavior applies for a job with a religious group and professes to be of the same faith, or if they can show a court that the position they are applying for is unrelated to furthering religious belief — such as teaching science or math or providing janitorial and other services.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a legal group that assists with religious liberty cases across the country, has also determined that the current religious exemption offers little protection against the proposed initiative.
In a 20-page legal analysis of the initiative’s impact the ADF noted that the exemption “imposes a significant burden on all religious organizations by requiring them to predict whether a court will consider their activities to be sufficiently connected to their religious mission to qualify for the exemption.”
IMPACT ON BUSINESSES
Just as concerning, to religious liberty advocates, however, is the chilling impact they say the initiative would have on private business owners and those providing services in the public marketplace.
Both initiative supporters and opponents agree on this point: that the religious exemption does not protect business owners who may hold beliefs which conflict with homosexual and transgender behavior.
One Anchorage spokesman Storrs said religious beliefs contrary to homosexual or transgender behavior have no place in the public market.
“The stance of One Anchorage is that when we are in the public arena, i.e. in business and so forth, there needs to be common rules that go across the board that allow everybody to achieve equally,” Storrs explained.
He added: “We recognize that all laws can impinge upon religious freedom. Not just this one but a vast number of them.”
Storrs said a degree of imposition on religious liberties is sometimes necessary.
“Because we should all be playing on the same plane of fair and equal treatment,” he said.
Opponents of the initiative, though, say the government oversteps its rightful limits when it requires people to violate their conscience and religious beliefs over a highly controversial moral issue in order to operate in the public square.
They maintain that there is a considerable difference between denying someone basic human rights and refusing to condone or facilitate homosexual and transgender activity and causes.
“There are religious and non-religious people who have principles they want to follow,” Flint said. “This law targets anyone who wants to conduct public business but who disagrees with this activity.”
In its analysis the Alliance Defense Fund noted that the proposed law especially threatens the religious liberties of business owners who offer services such as publishing, printing, photography, music, venue rentals, catering and others.
“If these business owners, compelled by their religious precepts, decline to express a message (or refuse to contribute their services to an event that expresses a message) supportive of homosexual behavior or same-sex unions, they will face discrimination lawsuits under the altered law,” the ADF states.
Specifically, it points to a similar law in New Mexico which violated the religious liberty of a photographer in 2007 after a state court ruled that her company engaged in discrimination by refusing — for religious reasons — to photograph a homosexual couple’s commitment ceremony. The court ordered the photographer to pay more than $6,000 to the homosexual couple.
When asked about a possible similar situation in Anchorage, in which a local print shop owner might be asked to print banners and flyers advocating a homosexual event which runs contrary to the owner’s religious beliefs, One Anchorage spokesman Storrs found no problem with forcing owners to print the material.
“Whether it’s a meal you’re serving to somebody or printing, it’s a service and there is no difference,” he said.
But according to the ADF, this approach to the law effectively forces business owners and professionals to “either violate their religious precepts and retain their livelihood, or adhere to their closely held convictions and forfeit their right to participate in the marketplace.”
The ADF adds that many Christian, Jewish, Mormon and Islamic believers hold that homosexual conduct is immoral. “Yet the proposed nondiscrimination law prohibits any religious person who holds these beliefs about homosexual behavior from acting upon their moral convictions.”
Additionally, the ADF notes that the Anchorage initiative will affect religiously motivated employees who address issues involving families, relationship or sexual conduct — such as counselors, doctors, lawyers, psychologists — “by forcing them to either engage in conduct that affirms homosexual behavior, or face punishment for refusing to violate their religious tenets.”
“The real goal is to drive everyone out who does not share their views,” Flint said of the proposed law.
IMPACT ON CHURCH-OWNED FACILITIES
Both supporters and opponents of the initiative note that it could impact church-owned facilities in Anchorage which are often rented to various groups for public concerts, community gatherings, retreats and other events not specifically related to the religious mission of the church.
According the ADF, the initiative “might force those organizations to allow the public to use their property for expressive events that directly violate their religious beliefs.”
Flint noted that such a case recently occurred in New Jersey. The case involved the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist organization that owns property on the New Jersey shoreline. The group hosted community events on its premises and weddings in its places of worship. In 2007, a same-sex couple asked to use one of the places of worship for a civil-union ceremony. The association declined because hosting a civil-union ceremony in its place of worship would have violated its religious faith. The same-sex couple filed discrimination charges and in January a New Jersey judge ruled that religious liberty did not exempt the seaside retreat from renting its facilities out for purposes that violate its moral beliefs.
Flint noted that a number of Anchorage churches, which rent their facilities could be affected in similar ways by the proposed law.
“If they offer their facilities for concerts or other services, then there is no exemption,” Flint said.
Storrs admitted that he was unsure how the law would apply to churches that rent out facilities, but said he opposed any effort by a church to enter the public sector without following the nondiscrimination law with regards to sexual orientation and transgender identity.
“If churches want to enter the public sector, for them to stand behind religion, does not create that fair and equal treatment, because everybody could stand behind that on different levels,” Storrs said.
Minnery, however, explained that religious liberty proponents have no intention of denying homosexual and transgender people fair and equal treatment, they just don’t believe the government should force them to approve of and accommodate homosexual and transgender behavior.
“This is forcing people to check their faith at the door of the church because their viewpoints are no longer welcome in the community,” Minnery said. “It is an unbelievable intrusion by the government.”