Homeless Shelter Exempt from Anti-Discrimination Law
A court ruling against a motion by an Anchorage homeless shelter effectively preserves its exemption from the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.
Winning by Losing
In a ruling issued this morning, US District Judge Sharon L. Gleason granted the Municipality of Anchorage’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the Downtown Hope Center. The only portion of the center’s case found to have merit is the credible belief that the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission (AERC) might have enforced the ordinance from May 25, 2021, when the Anchorage Assembly revised the language of the exemption, until August 16, when AERC Executive Director Mitzi Bolaños Anderson filed an affidavit declaring that the exemption still applies.
The current case put the Hope Center in the position of arguing that restricting its shelter to biological females only, thus banning transgender women, would run afoul of the law; the municipality countered that the law accommodated the Hope Center’s discrimination policy and therefore did not violate the religious organization’s First Amendment protections.
The matter began in 2018 when a transgender woman filed a complaint with the AERC after being refused admittance to the Hope Center, claiming discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Hope Center Executive Director Sherrie Laurie argued that the organization’s religious beliefs restrict the shelter to clients who are “born with, or currently have, only anatomical and genetic characteristics of a woman,” particularly clients who may have suffered abuse at the hands of biological males.
The Hope Center challenged the AERC enforcement and won, on the grounds that municipal code contained an exemption for institutions like homeless shelters. The city was ordered to pay the Hope Center $1 in damages and $100,000 in attorney’s fees.
Partly to avoid such lawsuits in the future, the Anchorage Assembly began revising the anti-discrimination ordinance. A new section, enacted in May, clarifies which public accommodations are covered, excluding homeless shelters, and another section deals with discrimination in the sale, rental, or use of real property. The Hope Center claimed that the revised ordinance still put the shelter in jeopardy of violating the law by exercising its religious beliefs.
Supreme Court Twist
The Downtown Hope Center and Soup Kitchen at Third Avenue and Cordova Street near downtown Anchorage.
The Hope Center sought a federal court injunction to prevent the city from enforcing the anti-discrimination ordinance, thus allowing the center to re-post its policy prohibiting transgender clients. Municipal attorneys sought dismissal on the grounds that the revised ordinance posed no threat to the Hope Center, given the exemption language.
Shortly after the Hope Center filed for the injunction, the US Supreme Court ruled in June that a Roman Catholic foster care agency in Philadelphia was not a public accommodation, and thus could legally discriminate against same-sex couples when placing children. In light of new case law, Bolaños Anderson stipulated that the AERC would view the Hope Center the same way, given that its client screening process is legally similar to (albeit less rigorous than) the foster care screening process.
In her ruling on the motions, Gleason determined that the Hope Center is indeed exempt from the anti-discrimination ordinance and therefore had no grounds to believe enforcement was imminent—with one exception. The exemption language in the real property clause is ambiguous, Gleason found, and the statements of Assembly members enacting it also failed to rule out the possibility of enforcement action. Therefore, the Hope Center may still seek damages for whatever chilling effect it suffered between May 25 and August 16.
The legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the Downtown Hope Center, claimed victory. Even though Gleason denied most of the motions, the Hope Center still gets what it wants: free exercise of religion without fear of government interference.