FAIRBANKS—A Fairbanks Democratic House member has signed on to cosponsor a bill that would extend equal rights and legal protections for members of the LGBTQ community statewide.
House Bill 82, introduced Wednesday by Anchorage Rep. Andy Josephson and quickly cosponsored by Fairbanks Democratic Rep. Grier Hopkins, would add sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the list of existing identifiers on which it is unlawful to discriminate. That list prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, changes in marital status, pregnancy or parenthood, or status as a veteran or veteran with a disability.
The bill follows a contentious debate in Fairbanks where a City Council ordinance of the same nature was introduced in December, heavily debated for two months, passed by a majority vote and then vetoed by Mayor Jim Matherly last week.
Those opposing the Fairbanks ordinance touted religious freedoms, and those supporting the bill advocated for equal rights for all city residents.
Hopkins said his co-sponsoring of the bill was not in response to the discussion in Fairbanks, but he said he supported the city ordinance.
"I testified on the ordinance back in December when it was introduced and urged the City Council to support it," Hopkins said. "But even if Mayor Matherly had not vetoed that important local legislation, I still would have supported this bill on the state level."
Josephson said the Fairbanks ordinance did not inspire his introduction of the bill.
Anchorage has had an LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination ordinance since 2015. Juneau and Sitka also have similar ordinances.
Josephson introduced the same bill during the 2017 legislative session. The bill gained cosponsors but failed to move forward. It was picked back up in 2018 and made it through the House State Affairs Committee with a bipartisan vote. The bill stalled in the Judiciary Committee.
Josephson said he feels this legislation will be adopted eventually.
"Although the governor surely won't support this measure, there's an argument that we should march forward regardless," he said.
This message rang true for Hopkins as well.
"We as Alaskans had the first laws banning racial discrimination in the country," Hopkins said. "And I think we should continue to support equal rights for all and continue our precedence in leading civil rights protections."
One of the most heavily debated aspects of the Fairbanks ordinance was the element of religious freedom protections. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the freedom of religion, stating that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... ," as does the Alaska Constitution in Article I, Section 4, stating, "No law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
However, the issue of religious exemptions was one of hefty debate and heated discussions within the Fairbanks City Council. Language within the ordinance language included exemptions for religious organizations, business and entities. However, the subject remained one of contention even in the final debates of the ordinance prior to its 4-2 passing Feb. 25.
Josephson said his bill contains some religious exemptions.
"In section six of the bill, essentially there are carve outs for ministers and religious organizations," Josephson said.
Another issue of contention within the Fairbanks ordinance was the minimum number of employees a business needed for the ordinance to apply. When the ordinance was passed, prior to its veto, the number was set at four. That subject is not a part of Josephson's bill.
Josephson said he's passionate about the issue.
"Along with the women's rights movement, this is sort of the last frontier of the civil rights movement," he said. "I can see where history is taking us, and I'm trying to speed that process up."
Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMPolitics.