Arkansas town divided over LGBT anti-discrimination measure

Eureka Springs, Ark.

Eureka Springs, Ark. Wikimedia

Eureka Springs, Ark.Wikimedia

Eureka Springs, Ark.

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — Nestled in the hills of northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs has long relished in its dual personalities – known for its play depicting Jesus’ final days and a 66-foot-tall “Christ of the Ozarks” statue as well as its reputation as a gay-friendly tourist destination, bolstered by being the first in the state to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

That balance of identities will be tested Tuesday, when voters decide whether to repeal a recent local ordinance that extends discrimination protections to the LGBT community. It could set the stage for a broader legal fight over a new state law aimed at preventing cities and counties from expanding discrimination protections, but opponents of the ordinance are casting the election as a fight for the soul of the city of roughly 2,000 people.

“The homosexual agenda has never been challenged with a public vote,” said Philip Wilson, the pastor of First Christian Church who’s leading the opposition. “So it’s basically a crapshoot …The community is going to have the opportunity to make that choice.”

The ordinance approved by Eureka Springs’ city council in February prohibits the city and private businesses from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

City officials gave it the green light in direct response to Arkansas lawmakers prohibiting cities and counties from barring discrimination on a basis not contained in state law, a measure that takes effect in late July. Already, Little Rock and Hot Springs have approved more scaled-back discrimination ordinances that only apply to city employees and vendors. But Eureka Springs’ move is the most direct challenge to the state prohibition.

“We don’t go by convention. If somebody tells us you can’t do something, well, watch us,” said James DeVito, the city councilman who introduced the ordinance and owns an Italian restaurant.

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Eureka Springs’ measure is also the latest pushback against new laws criticized as anti-gay, such as the religious objection measures that Arkansas and Indiana had to rework last month because of concerns it would sanction discrimination.

Being on the leading edge of the fight for gay rights isn’t anything new for Eureka Springs, which hosts “diversity weekends” throughout the year to celebrate the LGBT community. Back in 2007, the city began issuing certificates recognizing couples’ domestic partnerships, and in 2011, it became the first in the state to provide health insurance to employees’ domestic partners.

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