Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fayetteville Council votes 6-2 for civil rights ordinance that protects gay, transgender people

Posted By on Tue, Aug 19, 2014 at 6:42 PM


click to enlarge LINING UP; Crowd to attend Fayetteville Council circled the block. - CHRIS CLANTON
  • Chris Clanton
  • LINING UP; Crowd to attend Fayetteville Council circled the block.


click to enlarge OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Transgender residents of Fayetteville, wearing red shirts and holding a stuffed rabbit as emblematic of the fear in which they live, spoke up before Fayetteville Council
  • OUT OF THE SHADOWS: Transgender residents of Fayetteville, wearing red shirts and holding a stuffed rabbit as emblematic of the fear in which they live, spoke up before Fayetteville Council
UPDATE: At 3:20 a.m. today, the Fayetteville City Council voted 6-2 to approve a historic civil rights ordinance that includes LGBT people in its umbrella of employment, housing and accommodation protections. What follows is a chronological account of the evening, closing with Council comments before the vote and Mayor Lioneld Jordan's emotional sermon in favor of freedom and equality for all. Before it was over, the Fayetteville Flyer tallied, 54 spoke on an amendment to put the ordinance to a vote, split 36-18 against the vote. Then, in comments on the ordinance itself, 73 Fayetteville residents and 14 non-residents spoke, with 49 Fayetteville residents and only one of the out-of-town residents in favor of the civil rights measure. 

There was wrenching testimony from victims of discrimination, particularly transgender people who took turns clutching a stuffed rabbit emblematic of the fear they face daily.


As expected, the Fayetteville City Council chamber and overflow rooms were full as others stood in line to enter for tonight's council meeting on a proposed civil rights ordinance for the city.

It would protect against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations for numerous classes of people, but the controversy has been stirred by so-called Christians' objections to protections for gay people. They fear they'll be unable to discriminate against them if the law is passed. The law calls of mediation to reconcile problems, but it does provide for legal actions if disputes can't be resolved. Churches are exempt from many of the provisions.

The religious right, through the Family Council and reality TV figure Michelle Duggar, has been whipping up a frenzy of fear that the ordinance could lead to gender crossover use of restrooms. The city has responded that the fear is baseless. I've noted that there's nothing to prevent adept cross-dressers from infiltrating restrooms now.

We mentioned earlier that amendments were expected, as well as an effort to send the ordinance to a public vote.

Sponsor Matthew Petty proposed amendments to exempt all non-profits and places of worship from provisions of the ordinance except for events paid for by public funds. The amendment also allows gender segregation, to deal with the great bathroom question. And another alderman proposed sending the ordinance to a vote in the general election. 

The debate extended for hours on the amendments. The election motion was expected to be defeated. A petition campaign would be possible. It would have to gather 4,000 signatures by the end of August to refer the measure.

The Fayetteville Flyer Twitter feed has good comments from the public as they happen. Gay people who fear or have experienced discrimination. Opponent who fear perverts in bathroom — no examples offered. The city attorney noted that state law already covers people who enter restrooms for criminal reasons.

Rep. Charlie Collins, the Republican from Fayetteville, was among those asking the Council to refer the ordinance to a public vote. A law professor said that's a bad idea. Indeed, what would Charlie Collins say if we asked him to refer some of his legislation to a public vote, like the one trying to cram more weapons down the throats of college campuses that don't want them? That's not why we elect representative bodies, to punt tough decisions. The burden should be on the public, said law prof Laurent Sacharoff, if the desire is discrimination. Let them petition to vote for it.

Charlie Collins said the ordinance would be bad for business. Yep, treating gay people with respect has damn near killed San Francisco.

The Fayetteville Flyer said 43 residents spoke on the ordinance at the outset — 16 for and 27 against. A crowd of out-of-city residents also wanted to be heard. But proponents also were heard objecting to putting the question of minority rights to a majority vote.

click to enlarge SPEAKING FOR MINORITIES: One of many speakers at Fayetteville Council, recounting vandalism she encountered on moving to the city that she believes was prompted by a car sticker supporting equal rights for gay people. She urged City Council not to put minority rights to a majority vote.
  • SPEAKING FOR MINORITIES: One of many speakers at Fayetteville Council, recounting vandalism she encountered on moving to the city that she believes was prompted by a car sticker supporting equal rights for gay people. She urged City Council not to put minority rights to a majority vote.
The streaming is alternately painful and exhilarating to watch. Exhilarating was the procession of speakers urging that minority rights not be up to a vote. They were mothers, people of faith, an Iraq veteran, a 7th grader speaking for a friend, champions of the diversity that is Fayetteville. Make the opponents do their own dirty work, one speaker suggested. Make them stand up for the discrimination they want to preserve.

At 9:30 p.m. the Council adopted the amendments to provide further exemptions for churches and to provide for gender segregation to address the bathroom controversy. Both amendments were approved without dissent.

Then came the vote on whether the ordinance would be sent to voters. Alderman Justin Tennant objected to those who feared a majority would object to the ordinance in a vote. He said it might not be discrimination that explained that, but concrete objections to practical problems created by the ordinance. Alderman Mark Kinion said he could pass the buck with an electioin in the offing, but wouldn't because fear could trump truth. Alderman Alan Long said he was swayed to oppose the vote by unprecedented input from ward residents. He said a council vote to call a special election would cost money. Opponents can put a referendum on the general election ballot at no cost. Mayor Lioneld Jordan recalled the heat he endured as an alderman on a non-smoking ordinance and his desire then to pass the issue to voters. But he realized he was bowing to pressure. "We were elected to make decisions," he said. The mayor only votes in case of ties on the eight-member Council, but made it clear where he stood.

The motion for a vote of the people failed with only two votes for it — Tennant and Martin Schoppmeyer.

At that point, the Council took a break for further debate on the ordinance itself. Tennant seems to have made it clear he'll oppose it. But the 6-2 vote against a vote seems to augur well for passage.

At 10 p.m. the public comments began and a line of speakers stretched outside the door.

At 11:15, after extended remarks by a handful of speakers, the Cpuncil vote 5-3 to limit speakers to 3 minutes.

At midnight, the speakers continued —  straight, gay, trans, opponents, supporters.  I'm checking out and will pick it up in the morning.

At 1 a.m. they continue.  Affecting testimony from trans residents. There IS discrimination in Fayetteville. Unitarian, Episcopalian and Presbyterian clergy have supported the ordinance  Mireya Reith, a member of state Board of Education, lauded the ordinance, including for benefits to Latinos such as herself. It is not only about sexual minorities, she reminded, though that, too, is important.

OK, it's 1:30, eight hours after the meeting began.  There is still a line to speak. I think I've heard enough people say they oppose discrimination, but it would violate their rights if they are not allowed to discriminate as needed.

Noted: The talk of criminal prosecution for violations is true. But the maximum punishment for a violation is a fine of $500.

Fayetteville residents finally having been heard, the meeting was opened to comments from out-of-city residents and they, too, lined up, including preachers and others, including a lawyer, Marshall Ney, concerned that a reference to socio-economic background could be construed as interfering with credit checks. City Attorney Kit Williams said that wasn't the intent of the language. The claim of discrimination against Christians continues to be a popular theme. Also popular is the theme that perverts will be encouraged by the ordinance to put on a wig to enter a woman's restroom. Or that it will encourage pedophiles. The ordinance does not protect pedophilia, by the way. Or sexual assault.

click to enlarge TIME TO 'CLOSE THE LOOP': Sponsor Matthew Petty.
  • TIME TO 'CLOSE THE LOOP': Sponsor Matthew Petty.

Public comments finally ended at 2:43 a.m. The Council comments began with sponsor Matthew Petty, who said he'd first talked with city staff about the measure in 2008. He said the Human Rights Campaign contributed to his work with ordinances adopted in other cities. He said he was "shocked" to learn about the lack of protection for gay people. "I think it's important to try to close this loop," he said. He cited the numerous cities, countries and major companies with anti-discrimination policies. The talk of ill effects of business made him wonder when somebody was going to "predict the economic collapse of San Francisco." He echoed others who said cultural recruitment built on big ideas was encouraged by such ordinances. He said he couldn't believe a businessman still talked about the loss of a Cracker Barrel to a neighboring city.

He said he looked at his family in a photo he brought to the meeting and it inspired him to work for the next generation.

Alderman Justin Tennant, an opponent of the ordinance, said some of his best friends were gay and that it "pisses me off" when religious people say gay couples are going to hell. He said he knows discrimination exists. But he said his issue was about the process that will be involved, particularly that the mayor can find someone adequate and qualified to be the civil rights administrator who'd attempt to conciliate complaints and recommend legal action if disputes couldn't be settled. He said the city has unfilled positions and firemen paid too little and to do this new job right needs a full-time new employee. He fears public record of frivolous complaints could harm businesses. "I don't see a plan. I see an idea for a plan. But you don't act until you have a plan in place." Other cities have multiple member staff with less far-reaching ordinances. He said he'd prefer to build a real civil rights commission with appointed members. "I believe in the spirit of this thing. But this is an overreach." He feared the city wasn't prepared.

Alderman Mark Kinion said he had full confidence in the administration and thought the city was prepared. He praised the "courageous outpouring" of people who'd revealed intimate details of their lives. "That's why we must take the step forward bravely and we must do it with immediacy." He said it would be wrong not to fund the organization if someone's safety was at issue, and he said there's no doubt that's true. It was a brave move by Petty to bring it forward, he said. Kinion said he was "too chicken" to sponsor it himself, even though he's a gay man and active in equal rights groups. "I wanted to wait," he said. "I don't want to wait anymore. …. I have all confidence in our administration we can handle it."

Alderman Adella Gray said it was the right thing to do. She said the ordinance might not be perfect, but that the city often passes ordinances that require amendments. After hearing stories of mistreatment, she said, "It is time. We do not need to prolong it any longer." She said she was embarrassed that Arkansas is one of only two states without a civil rights commission. She hoped Fayetteville's movement would make the state realize the need.

Alderman Sarah Marsh echoed others' confidence in the mayor's administration and said, too, that there were always opportunities to revise ordinances to improve them. "We've got a really good starting point here." She said she'd done work as an architect for churches with beliefs she didn't share. But she was doing a professional service. She said, in response to some in the crowd tonight, that baking a cake, too, was a professional service, not a matter of religion. Marsh, who grew up in a sundown town, said she moved to Fayetteville to be in a more welcoming environment. "I don't want the failure of this ordinance to drive other young people away." She spoke, too, of her gay stepbrother (not brother as I originally wrote) and her mother who worked with a gay man who helped her in a serious illness. "To think that man could be denied employment, it just breaks my heart." She said she wanted all children to grow up to feel safe and loved for "exactly who they are."

Mayor Lioneld Jordan addressed how he'd handle implementation of the ordinance in 31 days. He said he handled a major ice storm when he first took office. He said the city had a 22-month recession. "I did not raise anybody's taxes and I handled the job." He added: "My staff and this council will figure this out in 31 days." He remembered getting 1,800 emails, many critical, for a resolution supporting gay rights earlier in his tenure. He's gotten 1,200 in the last week. But he supports the ordinance. "Why? Because i believe everybody should have the same rights as everybody else."

"We have three classes of people not protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964," the mayor said. He noted 18 states and 200 cities have passed legislation "and we need to be one of those cities."

He closed on an emotional, nearly poetic note. "I see a day of love and peace and hope. I see a day when we don't put tags and labels on people. …. I see a day when we all have equal rights. I see a day when everyone is judged by their character and not by a label or a tag." He said the council had seen people excluded from the "table of equality," and it was time for them to have a seat.

"Without equality and diversity and inclusion there is no freedom for anyone. And I'm going to stand for that freedom as the mayor of this city."

There was no more comment from Council members. The vote was called at 3:20 a.m.. The ordinance was adopted 6-2, with Martin Schoppmeyer again joining Tennant in opposition. A round of applause broke out after a night with virtually no demonstrations or outbursts in the course of an almost 10-hour meeting. Police were on hand to quell disturbances, but they weren't needed.

Foes can be expected to mount a drive to put the measure on the ballot in November. They'll need to gather 4,000 signatures by the end of August. They'll have the same arguments heard tonight — bad for business, somehow harmful to "Christians" — but the core of their argument will be to roll back newly adopted civil rights protection for minorities who vividly illustrated the need. Fayetteville defeated a human rights ordinance at a referendum 18 years ago — the margin was 58-42 one speaker recalled tonight. Have times changed? Leadership certainly has. The Fayetteville mayor then wanted no part of protecting sexual minorities. The ordinance was passed over his veto.

UPDATE: Jerry Cox, leader of the anti-gay Family Council, which has worked to put gay discrimination statutes on the books on at least two occasions, issued a statement Wednesday saying the Council defied the will of the people (though more spoke in support of the ordinance than against.) He said it was a lawsuit waiting to happen. He said he believed some would try to repeal the ordinance; others would sue. During the meeting, one preacher from a nearby community said if he were found in violation of the law (he didn't say what action he might take for that to happen) he'd refuse to pay the fine. He wanted to be sure that could then trigger jailing. City Attorney Kit Williams affirmed that failure to pay a fine someone was able to pay could result in a contempt of court citation and that could be punishable by jailing. 

Supporters of the ordinance had an organizing meeting this morning for the expected referendum campaign. They also said they say political motives in the two votes against the opposition. Tennant is considered a possible candidate for mayor against Jordan in 2016. Schoppmeyer, who runs the Haas Hall charter school, is considered a potential future candidate for the state House seat currently held by Rep. Charlie Collins.

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