Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Resistance to equality in Eureka Springs and Little Rock

Posted By on Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 7:20 AM

LANCE HINES: City director claims laws already on the books that cover discrimination against gay people.
  • LANCE HINES: City director claims laws already on the books that cover discrimination against gay people.
The fight for equal rights continues and the forces of darkness are powerful, even in more progressive cities in the state, Eureka Springs and Little Rock.

Eureka Springs passed a local civil rights ordinance for gay people in advance of legislative approval of a law intended to ban such protections. An on-line forum reports word that some of the same anti-gay forces that worked to repeal a Fayetteville civil rights ordinance are at work on a referendum to repeal the Eureka Springs ordinance. Local people are rising up to meet the challenge. They beat back an earlier referendum effort to overturn Eureka's domestic partnership registry, a symbolic welcoming tool that helps Eureka to be a mecca for gay tourists and others who don't fear open diversity.

This morning, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's Chelsea Boozer followed up on my report that City Director Kathy Webb was working on a civil rights ordinance for Little Rock. To no surprise, Directors Joan Adcock and Lance Hines, reliably retrograde votes (Adcock, you may recall, resented the observance of the 50th anniversary of desegregation), turned up as likely opponents and Gene Fortson, hewing to the Chamber of Commerce line, indicated a disinclination to rocking the boat with anything more than a meaningless resolution of support for our LGBT brothers and sisters.

Adcock said she wants to see how the state deals with the issue. We already know the answer. The legislature has passed a bill that supports discrimination. Little Rock should do the opposite.

And then there was Hines:

Ward 5 City Director Lance Hines said he doesn't think it's necessary for cities to take up anti-discrimination ordinances because state and federal laws already cover the issue.

I have written Hines and ask him to cite a single state or federal statute that prohibits discrimination against LGBT people in employment, housing and public accommodations. Their absence on the state level is precisely how Sen. Bart Hester intends to ban them at the local level. If Hines wants the ability to discriminate against gay people, he should merely say so. At least Hester and Bob Ballinger and their ilk are open about it.

UPDATE: Hines responded:

No citation as I told Chelsea my initial thought was that our current state and federal laws were adequate without creating another protected class. I also told her I had not seen Director Webb's ordinance and I would like to see it first before deciding.

So. There is no law protecting gay people and Hines doesn't want one. Got it.

The state law aims to prohibit enforcement of local ordinances. If Little Rock passes such an ordinance and the state law is invoked, I and many lawyers believe the state law would be declared unconstitutional, as happened in Colorado 19 years ago.

As luck would have it, I wrote a column for this week's Times urging Little Rock to put a progressive face to the world. Do you think Google and other tech companies would be more or less likely to be attracted to our tech park if we passed or defeated an ordinance aimed at protecting the rights of gay people? Missing from the D-G article was a single city director, other than Kathy Webb, saying what Reps. Clarke Tucker and Warwick Sabin said in legislative debate: It is the right thing to do.

PS — A correspondent writes this morning of a tepid response from North Little Rock aldermen he'd written urging action in that city. One noted that the city had added a sexual orientation non-discrimination clause to the city employee handbook.

UPDATE: Here's a proud moment for Arkansas thanks to the wave of homophobia evident at every level of government. Washington Post headline and story:

Arkansas wants to attract businesses by allowing them to discriminate against gay people

My column, on precisely the same subject, follows:

Little Rock’s time

It is time for Little Rock to demonstrate it is the leading city in Arkansas.

The Arkansas legislature last week completed action on a bill to prohibit local governments from passing ordinances that expand civil rights protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Sen. Bart Hester, sponsor of the legislation, was provoked by Fayetteville’s adoption of such an ordinance. He even threatened to cut state support for the University of Arkansas after its chancellor, David Gearhart, made a mild statement on the side of equal rights.

The bill was slowed a bit in the House, thanks to a push from the Arkansas Municipal League, which raised structural objections. The bill prohibits any sort of preferential treatment for a class not already protected in state law. Could Little Rock still give bidding preference to local companies when this law takes effect? Could it give special rates to the elderly or families? What is a family, anyway?

Mayor Mark Stodola made a tepid statement about Hester’s bill when it first appeared. He stuck to the local control defense. But when the debate reached the House, a couple of Little Rock legislators, Clarke Tucker and Warwick Sabin, focused instead on the simple unfairness of a state law protecting discrimination against gay people.

Tucker had a family experience to draw on –grandfathers who’d served on Arkansas school boards in the days of desegregation He said it might be politically unpopular today to support equal rights for gay people – just as equal rights for black people were once politically unpopular – but he didn’t intend to be on the wrong side of history.

City Director Kathy Webb is working on an ordinance to bring the Constitution’s promise of equality to Little Rock.

Those who want legal protection for discrimination against gay people will say that the new state law prohibits enforcement of such an ordinance. Don’t be so sure.

The state law won’t take effect until late summer, because the anti-gay crowd couldn’t muster enough votes to pass the emergency clause. Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he won’t veto it, though he indicates at least a touch of discomfort by also refusing to sign it.

It is legal today for cities to ban discrimination against gay people. Little Rock should do so and dare Bart Hester and other hate groups to try to stop it. They will have a hard time proving a rational state interest in promoting discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke on that in a Colorado case 19 years ago. They will have a hard time, too, proving the compelling public interest in allowing a merchant to refuse to provide a hotel room, meal or other public accommodation because he disapproves of the perceived “sin” of homosexuality.

Remember when federal law made even people brandishing ax handles serve fried chicken to black people? The resisters then also had deeply held beliefs that the Bible prohibited mixed dining, bathing or marriage. It should be no less clear today that no religious freedom has been breached by applying a similar rational protection to gay people in common commercial services.

The mythical Christian cake baker – forced to provide a wedding cake for a transgender couple – has been much invoked in the debate. I don’t recall similar worries about the godly butter-cream icing purveyor being forced to feed adulterers, gluttons, horse thieves and other sinners.

When they say it isn’t about sex, it’s about sex.

Arkansas may venerate Robert E. Lee above Martin Luther King. It may hold an unmatched animus toward a twice-elected black president. It may hold religion supreme over science in biology classrooms. It may be a state whose majority believes in discrimination against gay people.

Little Rock is better than that. It should prove it by black-and-white deed. Pass an ordinance that says — from the airport to Chenal Valley and the tech park in between – discrimination isn’t tolerated. It’s good for business.

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