News (USA)

Northwest Arkansas city’s voters weigh new LGBT protections

Northwest Arkansas city’s voters weigh new LGBT protections
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R-Ark.)
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R-Ark.) AP
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A northwest Arkansas city is getting a second shot at banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as voters weigh whether to challenge a new state law aimed at banning such local protections. Months after voters repealed an earlier anti-discrimination ordinance, Fayetteville is holding a special election Tuesday on a revised version of the measure that prompted the state law critics have called anti-gay. If voters approve the measure, it’ll make Fayetteville the fifth municipality to test the law aimed at preventing local-level protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. It also comes in the wake of Arkansas and Indiana lawmakers reworking religious objections legislation approved in both states over widespread criticism the measure endorsed discrimination against gays and lesbians. “It’s a ripe opportunity to right a wrong, especially considering the reputation impact that things like that (religious freedom) bill had last spring here and in Indiana,” said Kyle Smith, chairman of For Fayetteville, the group campaigning for the ordinance. “We’ve really seen what kind economic impact taking a backward step can have.” Supporters of the ordinance say they’re in a better position than in December, when Fayetteville voters repealed the anti-discrimination ordinance adopted by the city council earlier that fall. Smith said the proposal was reworked to address voters’ concerns. It now includes wider exemptions for churches, as well as religious organizations and schools. It also creates a seven-member commission to investigate any complaints under the ordinance. The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, which opposed last year’s measure, are now backing the revised ordinance. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group, had campaigned heavily for the ordinance last year but isn’t backing the latest proposal because it “stops short of full and equal protections.” Opponents of the ordinance said the changes have done nothing to alleviate their concerns that the measure will infringe on the rights of businesses and individuals. “The changes made were cosmetic and they changed wording and they made certain things more palatable to try to deceive the public,” said Duncan Campbell, president of Protect Fayetteville. Fayetteville’s proposal is similar to an anti-discrimination ordinance approved by voters in the neighboring tourist town of Eureka Springs. Little Rock, Hot Springs and Pulaski County have approved more scaled-back ordinances that only apply to their agencies and contractors.

The proposals were pushed in response to an Arkansas law approved in February barring cities and counties from prohibiting discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. Arkansas’ civil rights law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity, but supporters have pointed to those protections being mentioned elsewhere in state law.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge last week called the ordinances unenforceable in a nonbinding advisory opinion, and Protect Fayetteville has also argued it violates the state law. The group said it will continue challenging the ordinance’s legality, despite a state judge denying the group’s attempt to block the special election.

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