Court Tosses Case Challenging Alaska Fair Housing Law

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Lambda says decision is important for lesbian and gay families
August 4, 2000

(LOS ANGELES, August 4, 2000) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Friday applauded a federal court’s decision to dismiss a case brought by two Alaska landlords seeking exemption from any ban on marital status discrimination should an unmarried couple ever apply as tenants. The landlords claimed complying with the law would offend their religious beliefs.

The case, Thomas v. Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, has important implications for lesbian and gay families as well as many others who, as the court noted, might not fit “the landlords’ view on appropriate tenants.”

“Civil rights stand stronger today because of this court’s decision,” said Lambda Cooperating Attorney Clyde Wadsworth of San Francisco’s Heller, Ehrman, White & McAuliffe, co-author of Lambda’s amicus brief in the case. He added, “Landlords should not be prying into the private relationships of their tenants, who could be two female roommates, a gay couple, or Will and Grace.”

Added Supervising Attorney Jon W. Davidson of Lambda’s Western Regional Office, “The Court rightly saw through the smokescreen of these landlords’ claims for religious exemption, which had no basis in experience.”

Davidson noted that the decision was consistent with the prior rulings by the court, which stressed, “[O]ur decision neither shuts the door to pre-enforcement challenges nor does it establish a new approach to justiciability....”

Jennifer Pizer was co-author of Lambda’s friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission and the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. The brief was joined by the National Lesbian and Gay Law Association.

Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that, “This is a case in search of a controversy,” noting, “this stage is purely hypothetical and the injury is speculative.... Thus, dismissal of this action is required.” There was one concurrence and one dissent with the 11-member court’s ruling.

Although the landlords in the case, Kevin Thomas and Joyce Baker of Anchorage, had never faced complaints from unmarried prospective tenants, both filed suit in 1995, demanding exemptions from the law should they ever receive applications from such couples; they claimed the Alaska and Anchorage anti-marital status discrimination laws would burden their religious freedom by requiring them to allow extra-marital sex on their property. A federal trial court had agreed with the landlords’ expansively-phrased religious liberty claims and, in January of 1999, a divided appellate panel affirmed. But, in agreeing last October to rehear the case, the en banc appeals court did away with the lower rulings.

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization serving lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.

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

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CONTACT: Jon W. Davidson 323-937-2728 x 228
Clyde Wadsworth 415-772-6792
Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984 (pager)


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