Update: This story has been updated with an interview with the ordinance’s sponsor Kathy Ottersten.
After hours of public testimony that the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner described as including “opposing views, emotional testimony, occasionally coarse language, angry accusations and impassioned feelings and vulnerabilities,” the Fairbanks City Council voted shortly after midnight Monday to postpone a final vote on a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance for more than two months.
Councilman David Pruhs, who co-sponsored the ordinance with Councilwoman Kathy Ottersten (the body’s first openly transgender woman), told The Midnight Sun that the council has scheduled three work sessions between now and the Feb. 25 meeting where the final vote on Ordinance 6093 is currently scheduled.
“It will be passing, but we think it needs a little bit of work,” he said, adding that definitions around what constitutes a religious institution need to be worked out now rather than in legal disputes later. “Some people can say you can fix it later, but as we both know it never gets fixed later. Let’s just do it right and get it right.”
Pruhs supported the delay while Ottersten argued for it to be voted on during the Monday night meeting.
In an interview with The Midnight Sun, Ottersten said she was worried about the impact there might be for people who spoke out during the hearing, noting that they could still legally face repercussions. She said, however, that she ultimately didn’t oppose the delay, especially if people felt the measure had been sprung on them.
“We’re asking people to do something they haven’t considered, not because they’re bad people, but because they’ve never been asked. Well now I’m asking,” she said. “If this is the process that people are comfortable with then I’d be happy to do that.”
Work sessions on the ordinance have been scheduled for the mornings of Jan. 8, 9 and 10.
The ordinance was modeled after Juneau’s equal opportunity legislation, but its exemptions for when and where discrimination is permitted were expanded.
It bars employers with more than 15 employees (Juneau’s was four) from refusing to hire someone based on the person’s “race, color, age, religion, sex, familial status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, ethnicity or national origin.”
The same protections would extend to housing except in cases where the rooms are part of the owner’s personal residence.
Pruhs said it’s not the intention of the ordinance to impact a businesses’ ability to deny service to any person for any reason. It’s strictly focused on employment and housing, he said.
Public testimony was broadly supportive with many people sharing personal stories of discrimination. A not insignificant number of opponents frequently interrupted the meeting and were particularly coarse—with one man saying if the ordinance was shoved down his throat, he would “shove it up your ass.”
Councilwoman Ottersten met the opponents head on, responding directly to a heckler who interrupted her discussion of the ordinance.
“We cannot use religion as a pretense for discrimination, we’ve done that far too much in our history,” she said. “So, no, I do respect religion. It’s a very big part of my life, and if you’d like I’ll bring my bible and, sir, you can look at my handwritten notes and see how well-worn it is. It is much loved, but this matters to me.”
As for the changes, Ottersten acknowledged that she wasn’t happy with the change that allowed employers with up to 15 employees to discriminate in its employment decisions, but acknowledged that small businesses can put people in closer quarters than they might want.
She didn’t relent, however, when it came to larger exemptions requested by opponents.
“I respect the right of people not to like me, I respect the right of people to not want to come to my house and pray with me, to not want to break bread with me and to not want to sit and listen to my tired old stories,” she said. “But I will sit and say that we do not have the right to hurt each other, we do not have the right to put each other out on the street.”
Ottersten said discrimination in her life has been very real.
“In my life, and I hope nobody goes through this, I have been attacked, I’ve been denied jobs, I’ve lost my housing and to this day I have physical injuries that cause me to be unable to do other things because I’ve been attacked for who I am,” she said. “When I sit and say to you that I hope no one ever goes through that again, I mean it.”
Video of the meeting
Ottersten’s comments begin around the 49-minute mark.