Court Urged to Reject Discrimination Based on Religious Belief

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Full Ninth Circuit court to re-hear Alaska challenge Thursday, March 23, 8:30 a.m.
March 22, 2000

(LOS ANGELES, March 22, 2000)—In a case concerning two Alaskan landlords who refuse to rent to unmarried couples, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund argues that gay people and many others are at risk if individuals can use personal beliefs to exempt themselves from fair housing and other anti-discrimination laws.

On Thursday, March 23, the 11-member Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission. Lambda Managing Attorney Jenny Pizer and Cooperating Attorney Clyde Wadsworth will be available for comment following the hearing.

Wadsworth, author of Lambda’s amicus brief in the case, noted the court already vacated a ruling from a three-judge panel that last year favored the landlords. “It is reassuring that the court invalidated the earlier ruling, which was startling in its disregard for civil rights. The law should not be injecting religion into the commercial sphere,” said Wadsworth, a lawyer with San Francisco’s Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe.

Said Pizer, “These landlords claim that their personal beliefs give them license to discriminate against anyone who doesn’t conform to their religious practices. But barring unmarried couples from housing is not a religious exercise, it is an illegal business practice. And, it obviously shuts out gay people.”

The landlords, Kevin Thomas and Joyce Baker of Anchorage, Alaska, both defy local and state laws against marital-status discrimination by refusing to rent to unmarried couples. Although neither have faced such prospective tenants, they filed suit in 1995 charging that, should any unmarried couples wish to rent from them in the future, the anti-discrimination laws would burden their religious freedom by requiring them to allow extra-marital sex on their property.

In January 1999, a divided Ninth Circuit panel agreed with the landlords’ expansively phrased religious liberty claims. In a forceful dissent, however, Circuit Judge Michael Daly Hawkins undercut nearly every point of the majority’s opinion, stating the decision would open the door to refusals to rent “to divorced individuals, interracial couples, victims of domestic abuse seeking shelter, or single men or women living together simply because they cannot afford to do otherwise[.]”

A majority of the active Ninth Circuit judges voted last October to rehear the case and, in doing so, did away with the panel’s decision.

WHAT: Re-hearing of oral argument in Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission before an 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals

WHO: Lambda Managing Attorney Jenny Pizer and Lambda Cooperating Attorney Clyde Wadsworth, author of Lambda’s amicus brief; both will be available following the hearing

WHERE: Courtroom 1, U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, 95 Seventh Street, San Francisco, CA

WHEN: Thursday, March 23, 8:30 a.m.


(Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, No. 97-35220) — 30 —

CONTACT: Jenny Pizer 323-937-2728, ext. 223, Clyde Wadsworth 415-772-6792, or Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984 (pager)


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