Alaska’s non-discrimination law needs an update

Civil rights are not matters of public opinion, but of principle.

Our state has a historic relationship with civil rights. Well before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat to a white passenger, 17-year-old Alberta Schenck was ripped from her seat after sitting in the “whites-only” section of a movie theater in Nome, Alaska. Shortly after, Alaska Native civil rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich played a key role in passing the Alaska Equal Rights Act in 1945, nearly two decades before the iconic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fast forward to 1972 when Alaska voters affirmed the right of a woman to have an abortion just months before the famous Roe vs Wade case extended the same right for women across the United States. To this day, Alaska hosts some of the strongest abortion protections in the entire country.

Now, we stand as the Last Frontier of not just North America, but of a battle for inclusive civil rights for all. In September of 2015, the Anchorage Assembly voted 9-2 to update the city’s non-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. After a sustained effort to repeal the protections by religious groups, Anchorage residents voted down the repeal in a referendum. For the LGBTQ+  community, that meant joining a lengthy list of employment and housing protections that already exist across the State of Alaska.

Despite the resounding victory for civil rights, more needs to be done. Anchorage makes up the majority of Alaska’s population, meaning the ordinance protects nearly half of the state from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. Juneau and Sitka have similar ordinances, which make up roughly another 40,000 Alaskans.

However, Alaskans who reside in communities without additional protections —  especially ones that face active hostility on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity —  deserve to be included as well.

In February of 2019, the Fairbanks City Council passed a similar ordinance in a contentious vote. Unfortunately, the council’s decision was vetoed by conservative mayor Jim Matherly. There’s little recourse available for the veto, as mayors are perfectly entitled to cast down policies they believe are not in the best interest of the public. To override a veto, the council would need to collect support from five members of the body, which they don’t currently have (the body voted by 4-2).

The next step is for the ordinance to be put on the ballot, which Matherly is now pushing for. In a letter written following his veto on March 1, Matherly wrote that he believed the question “belonged to City residents that choose to exercise their voting rights,” adding that the ordinance is “bigger than a Mayor and six Council Members, and the decision needs to be in the hands of the voters of Fairbanks.”

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Matherly’s temptation to push the issue to the people is understandable, especially given that plenty of Alaskans hold deep religious objections to affording the LGBTQ+ community legal protections. The clash between these groups means we’re caught in a sticky situation: activists want to extend protections to people that some view as inherently less deserving of them. Gay and transgender Alaskans don’t deserve workplace and housing protections because they “chose” to be the way they are, so the argument goes. But this is no reason to refuse those protections. In fact, democracy is the very last tool we should be using to determine who is allowed rights and who is not.

Think about it: would we allow the people to deliberate about whether any other group of Alaskans deserves to have rights? Clearly, we would never surrender the state’s duty to protect, say, Alaska Natives, to a public referendum. Nor would we pass on questions of equal rights to African Americans. The reason we don’t is simple: people’s civil rights are not up for debate. Your religious values matter and they ought to be respected by the state. However, the objection to offering a vulnerable group rights protections cannot be because some individuals don’t view those groups as favorable. Rights are a matter of principle, not a matter of public opinion.

Mayor Matherly is right, the decision is bigger than any one city. In fact, it is a question belonging to the state, who is tasked with protecting Alaskans from discrimination regardless of what city they live in. Thus, it is incumbent on the State of Alaska to protect Alaskans from cities that refuse to offer protections that every individual deserves.

Luckily, there are already efforts underway to make protections for sexual orientation and gender identity a matter of state law. Sen. Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks and Andy Josephson of Anchorage have put forth legislation to turn Anchorage’s city ordinance into a statewide law. Supporting the law is not mutually exclusive with being a religious conservative. It does, however, require you to respect rights based on their purpose, which is to protect certain people from the whims of arbitrary, discriminatory practices. Whether you agree with the “choices” some people make or not is another question entirely.