AK Voices: Brian Sweeney Jr.

Brian Sweeney Jr. is an opinionated gastroenterologist in Anchorage.

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No Asking, Just Telling

On November 17, 2011 Providence Alaska Medical Center (PAMC)stopped hiring people who use tobacco. The message from PAMC was that they wanted to show they were a leader when it came to health.

The health consequences of smoking are well known. There are also increased problems with missed work due to the habit. PAMC felt these costs were enough to justify the decision.

Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage allow this kind of discrimination by a private employer.

Smokers do not pose much of a threat to fellow employees because the practice is banned on the PAMC campus. Still, the support for the discrimination enjoyed widespread community support.

There are plenty of conditions that cause people to miss work or increase health care costs. Chronic diseases or injuries that lead to disability are a great example. And lets be honest, gender can play a role. If a woman becomes pregnant she will miss work. Males are much more likely to suffer traumas and miss work. There may be employees that will miss days for religious reasons as well.

Pilots are required to retire at age 65. There has been a lot of conversation nationally about physician performance as age advances as well. It may be completely appropriate to scrutinize and older individual closely.

It turns out the Anchorage Municipal Code prohibits discrimination based on disability, religion, gender, age and other factors. There is nothing in the law to make exceptions when such discrimination might be beneficial to an employer financially or in providing a service.

There is nothing in the law right now to prohibit decisions made on "sexual orientation or transgender identity." An attempt was made to change that in 2009 and it passed the Assembly. It was subsequently vetoed by Mayor Dan Sullivan.

The opposition in 2009 was led by mostly religious organizations. The Anchorage Baptist Temple (ABT) and Reverend (Dr.) Jerry Prevo became the primary target of supporters of the change.

In 2011, supporters of the change have formed an organization One Anchorage and have collected signatures to put the issue to voters.

I served with gays and lesbians in the military. I have had homosexual employees in my office. I have gay colleagues. And I have seen all kinds of sexual orientations among my patients over the years. None of it has bothered me. In fact, my observation has been they are generally better at the jobs they perform.

That is me. If it does not interfere with the workplace I have no issue with it.

The problem for ABT and some other religious organizations is gay and lesbian behavior is not consistent with their religious views. The ABT has a right to its morality every bit as much as PAMC has a right to its position on health. Is it fair to tell ABT they can not use sexual orientation as a factor in hiring?

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) interests have made extensive efforts to be protected by the law. They are now allowed to serve in the military openly. They are close to winning the battle on gay marriage.

A colleague related a story to me a few years ago of how she had an employee that was simply not doing her job well. She had to terminate the employee after 3 months.

The employee happened to be a minority and immediately threatened a lawsuit. The defense attorney said all the appropriate documentation was in place but that was not always enough in the legal system.

The lawyer actually advised caution when hiring anybody who could claim discrimination. Scary honesty from the legal profession. A suit was never filed but the whole incident cost my friend money in legal fees.

It is antecdote. It makes a point. The system can very quickly be abused. The same people who were crying that the new sidewalk ordinance could be abused seem to have no problem with potential abuse of this law. Anecdote led to cries over a homeless protester but businesses that are critical for economic health are dismissed.

Does anybody remember the ridiculous lawsuit filed by men against Hooters? I view a man wanting to work as a waitress at Hooters the same way I view a LGBT individual wanting to work at certain religious facilities.

My bet is a LGBT business owner would be hesitant to hire a religious person who had issues with homosexuality. And under current law that might be illegal. The reason it is not relevant is the religious person likely would not go after the job. See how that works?

In an ideal world the only thing that would matter to a landlord or an employer would be the relevant qualifications of an applicant. For PAMC, that may include smoking habits. For The Alaska Club that might include Body Mass Index. And for ABT it might include sexual preference.

There should be laws prohibiting discrimination. Those laws should be more absolute when it comes to public entities. Restrictions should also be greater for organizations receiving government subsidies. There will still be limitations as a paraplegic will never be a Navy Seal.

It may be a slippery slope fallacy but what comes next? There are many other things people do in the bedroom that I would rather not see explicitly mentioned in municipal code.

The private sector deserves more latitude. There has to be more reason applied. And understanding that means that the beliefs of some may be seen as vile by others.

Your rights should end when your fist hits my face. The LGBT community feels like a fist may be hitting them in the face without the law. They should stop to consider if the law passes whether it represents a fist to the face of religious groups.

The law is unnecessary. Nobody needs to be throwing punches here. Unfortunately, the blood will continue to flow.

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