News (USA)

Cities keeping anti-discrimination measures despite new law

Cities keeping anti-discrimination measures despite new law
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge
AP Photo, Danny Johnston
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. —– Most Arkansas municipalities that have adopted broader anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians say they’ll keep enforcing the measures despite a new law taking effect this week intended to prohibit such ordinances. Little Rock, Hot Springs and Pulaski County officials say they don’t have any plans to stop enforcing their ordinances banning discrimination by their agencies or vendors based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Officials in Eureka Springs, which voted in May to keep a much broader ordinance that applies to the city and businesses, said they’re still considering the matter. The measures were approved over the past several months to challenge a law taking effect Wednesday that bans cities and counties from prohibiting discrimination on any basis not covered by state law. Arkansas’ civil rights law doesn’t include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people. Local leaders say so far, they’re finding little backlash to the expanded protections. “I haven’t heard from anyone who has said we won’t bid on city services if we have to check the box,” said David Watkins, city manager of Hot Springs, which approved its ordinance in May. “I don’t really anticipate any pushback because I can’t imagine a business wanting to do business with public money basically saying they will discriminate against the LGBT community.” Reaction has been equally muted in Eureka Springs, a northwestern Arkansas town that is simultaneously promoted as a gay-friendly tourist attraction and home to a popular outdoor play about Jesus’ last days. The only complaint accusing a business of violating the ordinance — for refusing to perform a same-sex wedding — was dismissed because the action was constitutionally protected, Mayor Robert “Butch” Berry said. “I don’t see this as an issue,” Berry said. “Eureka Springs has always been an open-minded and been accepting of people, so we’ve never had any complaints prior to this ordinance.”

Enforcing the measures will likely prompt a challenge over a law and whether it goes as far as lawmakers intended. Little Rock’s attorney has argued that the state measure doesn’t prevent cities from enacting protections for LGBT people, since sexual orientation and gender identity are included in other parts of state law.

The proposal doesn’t prevent a local government from adopting anti-discrimination protections that only cover its employees and agencies.

The only advisory opinion issued by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge about the law hasn’t specifically said whether the local ordinances adopted so far would be prohibited.

Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, who co-sponsored the law limiting the local anti-discrimination measures, said he didn’t believe Eureka Springs would continue enforcing its ordinance and said he viewed it mostly as a symbolic gesture.

“I think they’d rather have the symbol of the ordinance on the books and not enforce it than face a legal challenge,” said Ballinger, whose district includes Eureka Springs.

The Arkansas Family Council, a conservative group that backed the new state law, is considering challenging Little Rock’s ordinance in court and plans to reach out to vendors who may be affected by it.

“We’re probably months away from a court case,” said the council’s president, Jerry Cox.

The future of such ordinances could become even more muddled in the meantime, with the city of Fayetteville’s voters deciding in September whether to keep that city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

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