ANCHORAGE, Alaska (BP) — An Alaska law firm representing a Christian women’s shelter is defending itself from a complaint brought by the same municipal agency suing the shelter. The case raises a question: Will lawyers come under fire for defending religious clients accused of discrimination?
The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission (AERC) previously sued the Downtown Hope Center, a women’s only homeless shelter, for not admitting a man who identified as transgender. On Jan. 26, police dropped off Timothy Coyle — who goes by Samantha Coyle — at the center after another shelter banned Coyle from the premises for drunkenness and starting a fight according to news reports. Admitting individuals under the influence of drugs or alcohol is against the Hope Center’s rules, but director Sherrie Laurie paid for a cab to take Coyle to the emergency room to receive treatment for fight wounds.
Coyle came again the next day at 2 p.m., but the center does not allow admittance to the shelter until the evening. Coyle reportedly did not return.
On Feb. 1, Coyle filed a discrimination complaint with the AERC, saying, “I am female and transgender, thus I belong to a protected class.”
Kevin G. Clarkson, an attorney in Anchorage, took the Hope Center’s case, arguing first that the shelter denied Coyle services because he was under the influence of alcohol and showed up at the wrong time, not because of his transgender status. Secondly, Clarkson said, the shelter is not subject to the city’s nondiscrimination law that targets public accommodation services. Instead, the Hope Center is a nonprofit religious charity that offers services depending on whether individuals qualify, and Coyle had previously used the lunch and shower facilities there.
“[The Hope Center] does not shelter homeless men in its overnight shelter because this would traumatize and present unreasonable safety risks for the abused and battered women who are admitted for overnight shelter,” Clarkson wrote in a letter to the commission.
After Clarkson publicly defended the shelter’s religious liberty, the AERC filed a complaint against his law firm on May 15, claiming his comments violated the city’s nondiscrimination law. On Thursday, First Liberty Institute filed a motion to dismiss the AERC’s complaint, arguing it violated Clarkson’s free speech.
“To go after the lawyer — that sends a message to all the other lawyers, don’t take on these cases or we will come for you, too,” First Liberty’s Hiram Sasser said on Todd Starnes’ radio show.