Legislation to add sexual orientation to characteristics protected under Arkansas's 1993 Civil Rights Act stalled in a house committee Thursday after opponents said the move would create a number of problems under the state's labor laws.
The bill's sponsor, Democratic representative Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville, told members of the house judiciary committee the legislation is needed to ensure that gays and lesbians have basic legal protections enjoyed by other Arkansans.
"Banning discrimination is the right thing to do," Smith said. "Whatever someone's personal views about same-sex marriage or even same-sex relationships, Americans and Arkansans do not believe in discrimination. To deny people jobs or homes because of their sexual orientation is just plain wrong."
Smith later withdrew the bill from consideration by the committee, saying she realized she did not have enough votes to move the legislation to the full house. She said she planned to amend the bill and ask the committee to authorize an interim study on the issue before the legislature convenes in 2007.
Evan Breedlove of Fort Smith, a longtime personnel manager representing Arkansas self-insured businesses, said the change would make his job more difficult. "I would see an increase in litigation. As an employer, I don't care what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom, even if I don't agree with it. With this I will have to become concerned," he said.
Breedlove said the change would make gays and lesbians a protected group under the law, and employers would have to take steps to ensure they are not discriminated against. "I have to keep records on females and on race now, and I have to recruit [based on that] now," he said.
A representative of the state chamber of commerce also spoke against the bill, saying that it could run afoul of labor laws. Democratic representative Bob Adams of Sheridan suggested the law could open the door to affirmative action laws requiring companies to hire gays and lesbians.
Rep. Timothy Hutchinson, a Republican from Lowell, asked whether civil rights laws should be extended to bald and overweight people. "I fit into both of those categories. Where do we draw the line for purposes of protection?" he said.
But Smith and advocates for the legislation said gays and lesbians need special protections because they are a target of hate crimes. The Reverend Ed Matthews, a retired Methodist minister, urged the committee to endorse the bill. "Treating all of humankind as equal is just simply the right thing to do," Matthews said. "Everything just works better. To deny people jobs or homes because of sexual orientation just won't ever quite work right. We hold that folks who pay their rent and keep up their mortgage and are good neighbors ought to have the chance to fit into the neighborhood and not be kicked out because of sexual orientation."
Advocates said 15 states have laws banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. They said major Arkansas employers including Axciom, Alltel, Tyson Foods, and Wal-Mart also have policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (AP)