Fairbanks City Council delays LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance after outcry

Opponents and advocates of the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance packed the City Council meeting chambers for Monday night’s public hearing.
Opponents and advocates of the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance packed the City Council meeting chambers for Monday night’s public hearing. (Photo courtesy of Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

Fairbanks City Council members heard more than three hours of testimony Monday from a roomful of supporters and opponents of a proposed ordinance that would add provisions to the city code prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Among the 71 people who signed up to speak, former Fairbanks North Star Borough Assemblyman Lance Roberts and about 30 others argued against the measure.

“You’re going to try to help some people by hurting others,” Roberts said. “You’re going to start a war. You’re going to create conflict in the community that doesn’t have to be there.”

The opponents said the ordinance would infringe on their religious rights and would unleash a torrent of lawsuits. Some in the standing-room-only audience affirmed agreement by murmuring “amen” and hectoring those who favored the measure. But the Rev. Neill McKay of the University Community Presbyterian Church said advocates of the ordinance just want gay people to have the same protections that all other Americans enjoy.

“My conservative brothers are concerned about frivolous lawsuits. My evangelical brothers and sisters are concerned about religious liberty,” McKay said. “My progressive brothers and sisters are concerned about basic protections.”

Dana Lewis and many other members of the LGBTQ community said the ordinance is needed now, because they’re often subjected to discrimination in the workplace and the community.

“Now that I am out and proud as a bisexual member of the LGBTQ community, I unfortunately have faced even more discrimination,” said Lewis.

Some opponents, like Cheryl Beckley, said the ordinance was poorly written and would generate discrimination against Christians like her.

“I don’t believe we should discriminate,” Beckley said. “But on the other hand, it seems like the balance, the scale balance, if you pass this ordinance it’s going to be way over here now, instead of more balanced.”

But Pastor Leslie Ahuva Fails of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fairbanks, along with other local faith leaders, said those concerns are unfounded, because the ordinance and state and federal laws all protect religious rights.

“Churches and religious institutions are already free to make sacramental decisions on who they marry, and so on, based on their beliefs,” Fails said. “This ordinance does not change that. What we are talking about is people having protection to maintain their lives and livelihoods in the city.”

Community member Paul Koop said passing laws won’t halt discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community. He said Americans can solve that problem, and others, by restoring religion to its central role in society.

“It’s not about the laws,” Koop said. “We need to bring God into our lives. We need to bring God into our churches. We need to bring God into our schools and teach them to love one another.”

By the time public testimony ended just after 11 p.m., the council approved a couple of amendments introduced by Councilman Jerry Cleworth to clarify the language. Mayor Jim Matherly suggested the council should postpone final consideration of the ordinance.

“Just the fact that Mr. Cleworth has asked for some basic clarifications just tells me, in my gut, that we didn’t do our homework and have work sessions on this, something this important,” Matherly said.

The council settled on waiting until the Feb. 25 meeting to consider a vote on the ordinance.

The postponement disappointed the two newly elected council members who strongly supported the measure. Councilwoman Shoshana Kun worried that those who spoke out in favor of the ordinance would face retribution after coming out publicly. Kathryn Ottersten, who introduced the measure along with fellow council member David Pruhs, said that’s a real concern.

“I have been attacked,” said Ottersten, who is gay. “I have been denied jobs. I’ve lost my housing. And to this day, I have physical injuries that cause me to be able to do other things, because I’ve been attacked for who I am.”

Matherly said the council will hold work sessions next month to revise the ordinance. He and other council members may open one of those meetings up to the public to get more input on the measure.

Editor’s note: This story has been revised to clarify the proportion of the speakers at Monday’s public hearing who opposed the anti-discrimination ordinance.

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