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'Last frontier' of civil rights: Alaska weighs statewide LGBTQ bill

The bill's introduction comes just days after the city of Fairbanks vetoed a measure that would have added LGBTQ people to the city’s civil rights ordinance.

Alaska lawmakers introduced a statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill on Wednesday, just days after Fairbanks vetoed a measure that would have added lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to the Alaskan city’s civil rights ordinance.

Co-sponsored by Reps. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, and Grier Hopkins, D-Fairbanks, House Bill 82 would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing, employment and public accommodations. After filing the bill last week, Josephson said equality for LGBTQ people is “the last frontier of the civil rights movement.”

Image: Rep. Andy Josephson speaks at a rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Juneau, Alaska, in 2013.
Alaska state Rep. Andy Josephson at a rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Juneau in 2013.Joshua Berlinger / AP file

“It’s on the side of the angels, the side of civil liberties, and it’s the side I think is going to prevail,” he said of the measure. “I want to be a part of it.”

The bill was introduced five days after Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly vetoed an LGBTQ ordinance in the city of 33,000. On Feb. 25, the Fairbanks City Council voted 4-2 in favor of the measure following hours of public comment. Hundreds of locals wrote emails and gave testimony weighing in, with the majority voicing support. But four days later, Matherly said the topic requires “further examination” in an open letter addressed to Fairbanks residents.

The city council will meet on Monday night to debate overturning his veto, but that is unlikely to happen. Overriding the mayor would take five votes, and council members David Pruhs and Jerry Cleworth — both conservatives — remain staunchly opposed.

Although the sponsors say the introduction of HB 82 is not timed to the Fairbanks ordinance, State Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks — who introduced a companion bill in the Alaska Senate—wrote to city council members on Monday, just hours ahead of their revote on the ordinance, urging the city lawmakers to “reflect on what kind of a place” they want the city to be.

“Passing an ordinance to protect all Fairbanksans from discrimination shows that we come together to hold each other up and not push others down because of our differences,” he wrote in the letter, which was shared with NBC News.

In an email, Kawasaki added that statewide action on the issue is long overdue.

“It is past time to add these protections to our statutes and remove barriers for thousands of Alaskans who contribute to our state,” he wrote. “Hardworking Alaskans should not be discriminated against due to who they love ... or how they express their gender identity.”

Bills banning LGBTQ discrimination have been put forward in Alaska since 2013. That first year, one such bill was tabled after House State Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, refused to hear public testimony on the legislation, saying there was “no time.” As theAnchorage Pressreported at the time, in lieu of public testimony, Lynn permitted a legislative aide to describe the bill’s contents.

However, Josephson claimed there was unprecedented movement on an LGBTQ civil rights bill last year. In March 2018, the House State Affairs Committee passed House Bill 184, marking the first time a committee in the Alaska State Legislature advanced pro-LGBTQ protections.

While HB 184 did not receive a vote on the Alaska House floor, Josephson said supporters of LGBTQ rights “have to celebrate even the baby steps.”

“It might not sound that monumental, but it’s quite an achievement,” he claimed.

Image: Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly addresses a conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 18, 2018.
Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly addresses a conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on Oct. 18, 2018.Mark Thiessen / AP file

Progress on an LGBTQ nondiscrimination bill is likely to be incremental in 2019 as well. While Josephson claimed the first committee referral on HB 82 has been “very favorable,” newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy could be likely to follow in Matherly’s footsteps by vetoing the measure.

Given that both houses of the Alaska State Legislature are controlled by conservatives, it may never get to his desk.

But if HB 82 is allowed to advance, its supporters say Alaskans would come out in support of it. In an interview with Fairbanks’ Daily News-Miner, Hopkins noted Alaska “had the first laws banning racial discrimination in the country.” The Alaska Civil Rights Act was signed into law in February 1945, almost two decades before Congress passed a national version of the legislation.

“We should continue to support equal rights for all and continue our precedence in leading civil rights protections,” Hopkins said.

Currently, three Alaska cities have civil rights ordinances on the books banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity: Anchorage, Juneau and Sitka. A campaign to repeal Anchorage’s ordinance was ultimately unsuccessful after voters upheld the law in a 53-to-47 vote last year.

If HB 82 passes, Alaska would be the 22nd state in the U.S. with laws on the books explicitly banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing and employment, and the 21st to ban this type of discrimination in public accommodations.