Court Upholds Religious Freedom for Christian Women’s Shelter

Court Upholds Religious Freedom for Christian Women’s Shelter

A federal judge ruled Dec. 20 that the city of Anchorage, Alaska, cannot force a local faith-based women’s shelter to accept trans-identified biological males.

Judge Sharon Gleason of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska determined that Downtown Hope Center does not constitute a place of “public accommodation,” and therefore is not subject to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

Gleason based her decision on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, in which the justices unanimously agreed that a Catholic foster care agency was not considered a public accommodation. Because its “customized and selective assessment … bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant or riding a bus,” the court concluded that Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance did not apply to the agency.

“Hope Center’s admissions process is likely less onerous than a foster care home study but contends that it has much more in common with the foster care certification process than it does with first-come, first-serve, open access to a public bus or swimming pool,” Gleason wrote. “ … Under Fulton’s reasoning, Hope Center conducts a customized and selective assessment that places it outside the category of public accommodation.”

Kate Anderson, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, hopes that this most recent order puts an end to Anchorage officials’ attacks on Downtown Hope Center.

“This is the second time Anchorage officials have targeted the center for operating according to its religious beliefs and serving the city’s homeless population,” she said. “ … Vulnerable women deserve a safe place to stay overnight, and we’re pleased that they can sleep soundly, at least for the time being, due to the court’s order. Downtown Hope Center serves everyone, but its overnight women’s shelter exists to provide a safe place for women, many of whom have survived sex trafficking, rape or domestic violence at the hands of men.” 

In February 2018, the shelter referred a man, who was both inebriated and injured, to the hospital—and even paid for his taxi ride. Later, the man filed a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission alleging that the center had refused to allow him to stay there overnight because he identified as transgender. 

The city pursued the case, with the Downtown Hope Center filing a counter lawsuit against the city of Anchorage in federal court. In 2019, a federal court ruled in favor of the shelter in a temporary order.

The city eventually dropped the complaint, and both the city and the center agreed to make the court’s temporary order against the city permanent. But following the city’s loss, the Anchorage Assembly amended the city ordinance in an attempt to find a way around the court’s ruling, once again targeting Downtown Hope Center and trying to force it to let males sleep next to homeless women. This led to the center’s second lawsuit against the city.

In her Dec. 20 decision, Gleason wrote that the shelter is eligible for damages for the three-month period in which the center declined to post its rules because it feared prosecution.

“Faith-based nonprofits should be free to serve consistently with their faith without fear of unjust government punishment,” said ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of ADF’s Center for Christian Ministries. “This is especially true for ministries that help homeless women who have suffered sexual abuse or domestic violence. Because no woman should be forced to sleep or disrobe next to a man, we are pleased the court has allowed Downtown Hope Center to continue protecting women and operating according to its religious beliefs.”

 
Above: Downtown Hope Center’s Executive Director Sherrie Laurie.

Photo: Courtesy of Alliance Defending Freedom

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