Law & the Courts

An Alaskan Women’s Shelter Is Sued for Turning Away a ‘Man in a Nightgown’

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The municipality of Anchorage goes after the Hope Center for acting in the best interests of the women it serves.

It was a cold Friday night in January when Sherrie Laurie, director of the Hope Center — a Christian homeless shelter in downtown Anchorage, Alaska — was called down to the floor to deal with a disruptive “man in a nightgown” who was “very inebriated, with a big gash down his face.” Laurie recognized the man, whom she had seen in men’s clothing before, she tells me by phone. Though the individual professes a female gender identity, he was over six feet tall and “very large.” And Laurie was in no doubt about his sex.

Laurie explained that it wouldn’t be possible for him to stay the night — he was intoxicated and in clear need of medical attention. She called him a cab to the hospital and paid the fare herself. The individual left on good terms. When he showed up the next day, Laurie explained that check-in wasn’t until 5:45 p.m. (On Saturdays during the day, the Hope Center is staffed by volunteers and therefore is only open only to those who have checked in the night before and have undergone breathalyzers and bag checks.) Again, he left without an issue.

Though the Hope Center serves both men and women during daytime hours, its overnight facilities are reserved for females only. And, then, only women who are sober and who have been determined to be non-threatening. This is owing to the vulnerability of the women the Hope Center serves. They have often come out of “extremely abusive situations,” including sex trafficking and domestic violence. Laurie recalls one time assisting a woman who had been “held captive” and whose captors had “set her backpack on fire and she was burned.” She explains that the Hope Center staff (at night, all female) are often “first responders.” Laurie says that it is “absolutely critical” that this particular service remain single-sex. The women sleep in the same room and may be in various stages of undress. “Somebody may be raped and then come right to our door,” she says.

Laurie later learned that, before being turned away from the Hope Center, the male individual was in a fight at another shelter. Surely she made the right call. But not in the eyes of the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission (AERC), an administrative agency within the municipality of Anchorage.

A week after the incident, the AERC notified Laurie that they were investigating a complaint against the Hope Center on behalf of the individual she sent to the hospital, Jessica Doe. Doe alleged that the Hope Center’s shelter was a public accommodation and had discriminated against Doe on the basis of sex and gender identity. The Hope Center disputes both claims — the shelter is a non-profit, not a public accommodation, and, besides, it did not discriminate against Doe on the basis of gender identity. Indeed, had Doe been a female identifying as a man, there would have been no issue (provided he was also sober and non-aggressive).

“At first I didn’t even think of legal stuff,” Laurie says. “I thought, Oh my, all I have to do is explain this. Because it was so clear.” But the AERC would not back down. In fact, when Laurie’s legal counsel spoke to local media about the Hope Center’s policies, the AERC filed a second discrimination complaint, alleging that these comments, too, were discriminatory. This deterred the Hope Center from making further public comments about the case and, as a result, allowed their reputation to be tarnished in the public eye.

This was when the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) stepped in, taking the case to federal court. Laurie’s ADF counsel argue that the second complaint — which, in effect, prevents the Hope Center from publicly defending itself — is unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment. The second complaint was successfully challenged. And last Friday, the Hope Center was granted a preliminary injunction that temporarily enjoined the city from pursuing the first complaint, meaning that the Hope Center can continue to operate as a women’s-only shelter while the case continues. A decision on  the question of unlawful discrimination is scheduled for April 2020. Laurie’s legal team are hopeful.

“If you look at the order itself,” says Ryan Tucker, Laurie’s lawyer, “one of the standards is whether there’s a likelihood of success on our case. And so the court had to find that to grant our motion. We’re quite hopeful that we’ll have a final ruling that says something similar to what the court has already ruled.”

The Hope Center has served Anchorage’s homeless for 30 years. It first started offering overnight facilities in December 2015, in response to the nation’s drug crisis, which had increased the homeless population. Indeed, it was the city that initially asked the Hope Center to become an overflow shelter in response to this need. Now that same city is attempting to sue it for acting in the best interests of the women it serves. Laurie hopes she can put the incident behind her so that the Hope Center can “continue protecting these women and giving them a safe place to receive the counsel and the love and all the things that they need to get on with their life.”

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