LGBTQ equal rights bill advances in Alaska House, marking a first for the state

No Legislative committee has ever approved a similar bill

In this June 2016 photo, Juneau residents attend a vigil at Marine Park. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

When Kasey Casort was a 14-year-old high schooler in 2013, she was so struck by a piece of legislation that she printed it out and went through it with a highlighter.

 

The bill, an antidiscrimination act intended to protect LGBTQ Alaskans, never advanced to a vote.

Five years later, Casort is among the Alaskans cheering as the latest version of that bill advances in the Alaska House of Representatives. It’s the first time a committee of the Alaska Legislature has approved any measure banning discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Alaskans.

“I was pretty enraged about that,” Casort recalled of that moment five years ago. “It seemed like really common sense, and I was so enraged (when it didn’t advance).”

Now, she says she’s “cautiously hopeful.”

Last week, the House State Affairs Committee voted to advance House Bill 184, sponsored by Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage. The measure next goes to the House Judiciary Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, has said he will hear it.

If approved by the House, Senate and Gov. Bill Walker, HB 184 would forbid a landlord from refusing to rent an apartment to someone simply because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. Similar protections would be extended to Alaskans seeking jobs.

“In the history of the Alaska Legislature, there’s never been any LGBT-friendly legislation that’s moved,” Josephson said.

Asked why he proposed the measure, he said it is an issue of civil rights.

“It’s nothing personal to me and my family, but what is personal is civil rights, and this is definitely the last frontier of the civil rights movement, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

While the bill advanced with the support of one Republican, Rep. Gary Knopp, R-Soldotna, it was strongly opposed by Rep. DeLena Johnson, R-Palmer.

In a statement she read before last week’s committee vote, Johnson said she feels the bill is unnecessary because antidiscrimination laws should be based on “immutable characteristics,” and gender and sexual orientation are changeable.

The committee also heard public testimony in support of Johnson’s position. Writing to the Legislature, Carol Carman wrote that HB 184 and another bill, House Bill 310, “are nothing less than an attempt for this group of people to elevate themselves to a position where they can persecute Christians who believe the Bible, just as has happened in the lower 48.”

Twenty states and Washington, D.C. have already passed legislation similar to HB 184. Two states have passed weaker antidiscrimination legislation to protect the public, and three states — Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina — have gone in the opposite direction by rejecting such protections and forbidding cities and counties from offering them.

In Alaska, cities including Anchorage and Juneau have passed ordinances along the lines of HB 184.

Asked why the Legislature has not acted as those other states, Johnson pointed out that those other states are in the minority nationwide. She added that procedures under the federal U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allow some recourse for Alaskans to file discrimination complaints.

According to information from that agency, its authority does not stretch to housing discrimination or discrimination regarding public accommodations, two things covered by the proposed law.

When asked whether existing state law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, legislative counsel Linda Bruce wrote in a March 2017 memo that the issue is “currently unresolved.”

Beth Kerttula, serving as downtown Juneau’s representative to the House of Representatives, proposed the idea behind HB 184 in 2011. It didn’t receive a hearing that year or in 2012. When she proposed it again in 2013, it received a single hearing but never advanced.

That year, a Juneau Empire reporter was met by laughter when he asked whether the Legislature was likely to approve civil unions for same-sex couples.

At the time, 65 percent of Americans believed gay and lesbian relations between consenting adults should be legal. That proportion has increased since then.

Kerttula left the Legislature in 2014, but her idea was taken up by Josephson. His version of the bill didn’t get a hearing when he proposed it in 2015, or in 2016, but he persisted and proposed it again in 2017. The fourth time was the charm, and the bill is on the move.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, has proposed similar legislation several times in the Alaska Senate, but it has never advanced.

When asked why, she shrugged.

“Why this body won’t do it, I couldn’t tell you,” she said.

It isn’t just that Alaska is a conservative state, she said. Alaska is strongly libertarian, and to her, it seems like a rule that would allow people to do what they want.

“Why should we limit other people’s choices?” she asked.

Even if HB 184 isn’t likely to gain Senate approval, Josephson is optimistic about his odds in the House.

“I’m confident that I can get it to House Rules Committee. I think at that point, I can get sufficient support to get it to a floor vote,” Josephson said.

From Fairbanks, Casort said she hopes that happens.

“I really, really hope that it passes this time. It would mean the world. I think Alaska’s ready.”


• Contact reporter James Brooks at jbrooks@juneauempire.com or call 523-2258.


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