Court: Government Cannot Force Faith-Based Women’s Shelter to Accommodate Men

The Downtown Hope Center in Anchorage, Alaska, provides shelter for women and their children fleeing domestic violence. Some of the women have been sex trafficked. The last thing they need is to be reminded of this violence by sleeping next to men and sharing intimate spaces. But Anchorage would re-traumatize these women and shatter their safe haven if it forced the shelter to admit men pretending to be women.

The faith-based shelter’s troubles began when it called and paid for a taxi for a drunk and injured man who came into the shelter. He was wearing a pink nightgown and carried a pink suitcase. Executive Director Sherrie Laurie said the women, who had seen him at a different shelter, felt threatened by him. Laurie said the women told her later that had she let him stay that night, they would have left the shelter.

The man accused Downtown Hope Center of refusing to allow him to stay because he was a man. He filed a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission. A city ordinance required the shelter, considered a “public accommodation,” to allow men pretending to be women to stay. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit on the shelter’s behalf, asking the court for a temporary injunction, which it granted.

Although the city dropped the complaint after the loss and agreed with the shelter to make the temporary injunction permanent, the city amended the ordinance in an attempt to find a new way to target Downtown Hope Center.

But a federal court last month barred Anchorage from enforcing the ordinance against the shelter. From Alliance Defending Freedom (emphasis added):

The U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska found that Downtown Hope Center does not constitute a place of “public accommodation” and therefore is not subject to a city ordinance that threatened the shelter with fines and penalties for following its religious beliefs and serving women in need.

“Faith-based nonprofits should be free to serve consistently with their faith without fear of unjust government punishment,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said. “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.”

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