Assembly passes equal rights ordinance

More than 70 rally in support of city law

Discrimination based on race, color, age, religion, sex, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or national origin has no place in Juneau, according to the Assembly, which passed the city’s first anti-discrimination ordinance Monday night.

“This ordinance is well past due,” Assembly member Kate Troll said shortly before she and seven of her peers voted to add a new title on equal rights to city code. 

The equal rights ordinance, which becomes effective in 30 days, will give Juneau residents a legal leg to stand on if they’ve been discriminated against by an employer, landlord or business owner.

State and federal law prohibit certain types of discrimination, but they fail to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, anybody who is fired from a job or denied housing because of he or she is gay or transgender has no legal recourse.

Once the city’s equal rights law is on the books, any person who feels he or she has been discriminated against in a manner covered by the ordinance will have the ability to sue in state court.

“It is always the right time to do what is right,” Juneau resident and past grand president of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Freda Westman told the Assembly during the public testimony period of the meeting. “It is undebatable that this is the right thing to do.”

Most people in the Assembly Chambers — including the Assembly members — were of a like mind.

Shortly before the Juneau Assembly’s Monday night meeting convened, a procession of about 70 people waving rainbow flags and wearing rainbow buttons marched into City Hall.

The group had been rallying in support of the ordinance in Marine Park only moments before singing protest songs and chanting “the people united will never be defeated.”

Jeffery Roberts, who describes himself as “a true Alaskan gay,” attended the rally and supports the ordinance because he is tired of being treated like a second-rate citizen in his home of 33 years.

“I’m tired of people treating us like we’re a disease,” he said.

Of the seven people who testified on the ordinance Monday night, five were in support, but that number could’ve been higher. Many of the people who marched to City Hall already spoken in support of the ordinance during a special Assembly meeting in June. At that meeting, 29 people testified in favor of the ordinance. One of them was Karen Sewell, who attended Monday night’s meeting, too.

[29 testify in support of equal rights ordinance]

Sewell, an out lesbian, has lived in Juneau for 16 years. Though she hasn’t personally faced discrimination based on her sexual orientation in Juneau, she has friends who have. Fighting back tears at times, Sewell told the Empire that she is glad that the law now prohibits such discrimination.

“All in all, tonight is a very happy night,” she said beaming.

Two people spoke against the ordinance, and Assembly member Jerry Nankervis voted against it.

Juneau resident Tom Williams, who testified against the ordinance at the June meeting, too, said that it is “imposing a minority’s moral values on the rest of the community.”

“Now we have an ordinance that will allow (gay people) to flip the tables and discriminate against anyone who might not agree with them,” he told the Assembly.

Mike Clemens also spoke against the ordinance, asking the Assembly to send it back to committee for further work. He said the Assembly still needs to determine whether there is a public need for the ordinance.

Williams and Clemens testimony didn’t sway the Assembly, but they got the vote they wanted from Nankervis, the only Assembly member to vote against the ordinance.

“While I don’t disagree with the intent of this ordinance, I disagree with how we accomplish this,” Nankervis said, speaking to his objection.

For the second time in two weeks, he described the ordinance as “14 pages too long.” It also duplicates some state and federal anti-discrimination laws, Nankervis argued. He also took issue with the fact that it prohibits discrimination based on religion.

“Churches would have to rent to, let’s say, Satanic groups,” he said.

Assembly member Jesse Kiehl, who began drafting the ordinance a year ago, responded, pointing out that state law already prohibits discrimination in public accommodations based on religion. 

“The significant change — if we pass this, and I hope we will — is that you can’t screen a renter because they’re gay or because they’re straight or because they’re the wrong gender identity for your preference,” Kiehl said.

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com

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