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Arkansas At War With Itself Over LGBT Rights

Arkansas At War With Itself Over LGBT Rights


Some cities are defying the state's ban on LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination laws.

While Arkansas's "license to discriminate" law has been amended, the fight over LGBT rights isn't over in the state by any means.

Another state law, passed in February and going into effect this summer, bars cities and counties from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination protections -- and that's getting some pushback.

Little Rock's City Board of Directors, as its council is called, will tonight consider an ordinance that would bar the city from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment decisions, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. This, city officials say, would simply codify existing policy and is allowed under the state law, which allows cities and counties to ban such discrimination as it applies to their own employees, but not to private businesses. The board, however, is also considering a measure to require any company doing business with the city to have a similar nondiscrimination policy.

Mayor Mark Stodola said the measure will help show companies that might locate or expand in Little Rock that the city didn't agree with the "license to discriminate" measure, which in its original form would have let businesses turn away customers based on religious objections. "I'm doing everything I can as a mayor to tell them the city of Little Rock and the citizens of Little Rock in no way believe that's the focus we should have," he told the Associated Press. "The city's open for business and is welcoming people of all diversity."

Those who backed the state law said such a move by Little Rock would come close to violating it. "Frankly, I think they have the ability to decide who they contract with," Rep. Bob Ballinger, a sponsor, told the Democrat-Gazette. "The question is whether or not when you put that you'll only contract with people who agree to back protections not covered under Arkansas law, I think that could be getting close to running afoul of Arkansas law."

Eureka Springs, a small tourist town in the Ozark Mountains near the Missouri border, this year passed the type of ordinance now forbidden by the state, banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by any employer in the city. The vote by the City Council came in early February, just a few days ahead of the state action. But now conservatives have basically forced a referendum on the antidiscrimination law, so citizens will vote May 12 on whether to keep the measure or repeal it, the AP reports.

Opponents of the ordinance didn't submit a petition to get a repeal measure on the ballot; City Council members, recognizing that this was a possibility, agreed to put the matter to a popular vote and wrote their own measure "so that opponents couldn't shape the ballot question in a way favorable to their cause," the Arkansas Times notes.

Arkansas has no statewide ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and even though the revised version of religious objections law says it can't be used to discriminate, activists have pointed out the need for such statewide protections. The law addressing local antidiscrimination ordinances says they can't ban discrimination based on any characteristic not covered by state statute. Eureka Springs officials have said that even if this law makes their ordinance unenforceable, they could use the local measure as a basis to challenge state law.

One of the leaders of the campaign against the Eureka Springs ordinance has been the Rev. Randall Christy. Producer of The Great Passion Play, a reenactment of Christ's last days performed every summer at an outdoor theater just outside of town, he has called for Christians to "take back this city" and objected to the promotion of Eureka Springs as the "gay capital of the Ozarks."

"I think that is a mistake," said Christy told The New York Times. "Family vacation destination should be the thrust of this town again." Others, however, note that attendance at The Great Passion Play has declined in recent years and that Eureka Springs, a quaint, historic spa town, offers a variety of other attractions.

"They argue that a diverse array of tourists -- gay and straight, Christian and non-Christian -- come to shop for curios, browse in the art galleries and take in the natural beauty of the Ozark Mountains and the scruffy charm of a city that feels half-frozen in the Victorian age," the Times reports.

The move to repeal the Eureka Springs ordinance follows another such effort in Fayetteville. Lawmakers in that city, which is home to the University of Arkansas, passed an LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination ordinance in August, but voters repealed it in a special election in December.

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