There is a concept in Judaism that unnecessary stringency, even in the pursuit of positive goals, can have negative effects. This is similar to the idea of unintended consequences. A recent incident involving a women’s shelter in Anchorage, Alaska, illustrates how, taken to an overzealous extreme, even a sincere attempt to protect the dignity of some can cause tremendous suffering to others. In that case and others, self-righteous bureaucrats have distorted anti-discrimination laws to persecute religious and traditional Americans.
On the night of January 28, 2018, an employee answered a knock on the door of the Downtown Hope Center, a women’s shelter that provides a safe place for battered women and those who have escaped sex-trafficking. She expected to find another woman in need of a safe place to sleep. Instead, she found a biological male in a nightgown. He was drunk and appeared wounded. The biological man, Timothy Coyle, who identified as a transgender woman, Samantha Coyle, had gotten into a fight and been ejected from a nearby homeless shelter.
Sherrie Laurie, the director of the Hope Center, told Coyle that he could not stay there, but she provided him with cab fare and sent him to the emergency room for treatment. Coyle returned the next day, and the Center again informed him that it could not admit him for a number of reasons, including his arrival before the shelter opened for new admissions that day.
Coyle responded by filing a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, under a statute prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations. Yes, you read that right: A man sued a women’s shelter, claiming that it was legally required to allow him to sleep among the women it housed. This case highlights the way in which zealotry can go awry. The attempt to defend one group, transgendered individuals, is undermining attempts to protect the safety and dignity of a second group — vulnerable women.
Hope’s attorney moved to have the commission dismiss the complaint. He argued that Hope did not violate the law because it does not qualify as a “public accommodation.” Additionally, he said, it is a religious organization owed an accommodation for its religious liberty. The shelter operates a church on its premises. The Anchorage Equal Rights Commission rejected the attorney’s request and announced that it was going to proceed with an investigation.
The shelter’s lawyer explained that admitting a man would make it impossible for Hope to carry out its mission for women. All of the shelter’s clients sleep in one room, in close proximity to one another. Many of the women had been abused by men and would not feel safe or comfortable sleeping so near a biological man. The lawyer noted that allowing a man to sleep in the room would “traumatize and present unreasonable safety risks for the abused and battered women who are admitted for overnight shelter.”
The shelter tries to accommodate biological men to the extent it can do so without jeopardizing its core mission of helping vulnerable women. It has previously offered Coyle himself services, serving him meals and allowing him to shower by himself — he simply could not sleep there.
If this case alone wasn’t disturbing enough, the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission sued Hope’s lawyer after he made comments to a local reporter defending the shelter. According to the commission, publicizing the facts of the case also violated the anti-discrimination law. And so the commission’s fervor also led it to abandon the First Amendment.
The Hope Center acted not out of animus toward the transgendered: It was simply protecting the women sheltered there. The shelter does not discriminate against transgender people. Biological women are allowed admittance even if they identify as men. Such transgender biological women have slept at the shelter without incident.
The shelter even tries to accommodate biological men to the extent it can do so without jeopardizing its core mission of helping vulnerable women. The shelter has previously offered Coyle himself services, serving him meals and allowing him to shower by himself — he simply could not sleep there.
It is almost certainly true that most supporters of Anchorage’s anti-discrimination statute had good intentions. The law makes it illegal to “refuse, withhold from or deny to a person any of its accommodations, advantages, facilities, benefits, privileges, services or goods of that place on account of” a variety of factors, including “gender identity.” The statute defines a public accommodation as “any business or professional activity that is open to, accepts or solicits the patronage of, or caters or offers goods or services to the general public.”
Most of the statute’s proponents probably believed that it would prevent restaurants from turning prospective customers away because of issues related to their sex or gender identity. They likely thought it would help combat the despicable discrimination that characterized Jim Crow and segregation. They almost certainly did not imagine a situation in which it would be used to allow a drunken biological man, with a history of violent criminal behavior, to sleep next to women who had escaped abusive homes and sex-trafficking.
Unfortunately, ample evidence from a variety of cases shows that these statutes are not enforced or interpreted by the well-meaning citizens who support them. Rather, they are enforced by the true believers who staff state civil-rights commissions and similar agencies in dogged pursuit of a very specific notion of justice.
A member of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission insulted Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to make a custom cake for a same-sex wedding, comparing his sincerely held religious beliefs to defending slavery and the Holocaust. The commissioner also condemned Phillips’s description of his faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric” that he could imagine.
Remember that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the ruling against Phillips because the commission displayed impermissible animus toward Phillips and his faith, thereby undermining its status as a neutral arbiter. This should have marked the end of the story for Phillips, and perhaps for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission as well. Sadly, that isn’t the case. The commission is now bringing a new claim against Phillips. This time, it is prosecuting him for refusing to bake a cake celebrating a lawyer’s “transition” from male to female. The customized cake requested by the lawyer would have been blue on the outside and pink on the inside — symbolizing his alleged nature as externally male and internally female. Phillips have may have escaped from the commission’s clutches before, but it is undeterred in its desire to punish his transgressions.
A person can support respect and tolerance for transgender people while also considering it ludicrous to force the Hope Center to allow a biological male to sleep next to battered women.
In Washington State, the attorney general has waged a personal war against Barronelle Stutzman, the florist who refused to make custom floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding. Rob Ingersoll, the gay man whose order Stutzman declined, did not file a complaint against her. In fact, the two had a friendly conversation after her refusal; the encounter ended with the two parties hugging. Stutzman had served Ingersoll for years on many different occasions, knowing the whole time that he was a gay man. Nonetheless, the Washington attorney general decided to prosecute her. The attorney general did not merely press charges against her business; he sued her personally. If the State of Washington prevails, Stutzman, a 73-year-old grandmother, could lose her home and her retirement savings. Supporters of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws probably did not anticipate that they would be used to destroy an elderly woman.
Recently, Tim Gill, a prominent Democratic donor and LGBT activist, indicated that he wanted to “punish the wicked,” by which he meant such individuals and institutions as the Hope Center, Jack Phillips, and Barronelle Stutzman. Gill and the state bureaucrats who fanatically enforce anti-discrimination laws do not represent thoughtful citizens who support anti-discrimination laws.
A recent poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and reported by ThinkProgress found a 5 percent increase in the number of Americans who support religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. A year ago, a majority of those polled opposed such exemptions; this year, the respondents were evenly split. The same poll found that 71 percent of the respondents broadly supported anti-discrimination laws themselves.
At first glance, these two findings may appear to conflict, but they are actually consistent. Most Americans, including most religious Americans, rightly reject animus-based discrimination against their neighbors. However, they also disapprove of the draconian way in which such laws have been used recently. A person can support respect and tolerance for transgender people while also considering it ludicrous to force the Hope Center to allow a biological male to sleep next to battered women. It is well past time to restore sanity to anti-discrimination law, and the Anchorage Commission can begin by dismissing Coyle’s claim.
Howard Slugh is an attorney practicing in Washington D.C. Aylana Meisel is a nonprofit professional with a background in law and policy. They are two of the three co-founders of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.
Editor’s note: This article has been revised since its initial publication to clarify that the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission is a municipal agency, not a state agency.