Central Arkansas venues have a full week of commemorative events planned
Eureka Springs is an improbable place.
Thirty-five miles from blood-red Rogers, on the way to Klansville in Harrison, up mountain roads straight out of Kubrick's "The Shining," the hairpins pitching out over leafy chasms that make you imagine the smashed and undiscovered hulks of Hudsons and Packards secreted somewhere far below, gloveboxes full of field mice and grinning skeletons at the wheel; then, at last, from that white-knuckle highway, down into a deep and shady valley that would have surely been given over to deer and the occasional nutty hermit if not for the Victorians' faith in magic water. The trees open up, and there before you is the original hamlet of Eureka Springs, old hotels and slanting lanes, gingerbread mansions clinging to the rocks like orchids, easily the most liberal small town in the state.
On a ridge above town, a Godzilla-sized concrete Christ lurks in the trees, arms out, the statue lit at night by enough klieg lights to set fire to a passing plane. Nearby stands the 6,000-seat amphitheater of The Great Passion Play, built — like the six-story Jesus — at the alleged behest of God by the legendary anti-Semite, preacher and one-time Nazi sympathizer Gerald L.K. Smith, who moved to the sleepy backwater of Eureka in 1964 and eventually built a modest empire there out of milking disposable income from the vacationing faithful (Smith died in 1976 and was laid to rest at the base of Big J.C., thereby becoming part of his own tourist trap). The Passion Play was once one of the top tourist attractions in the whole country (an employer that, no doubt, kept scores of young men who could pull off a serviceable Philistine beard in pot and the occasional Friday night rip down Fayetteville's Dickson Street over the years), but has fallen on hard times, closing briefly in 2012 because of money troubles and attendance way, way down from a high of almost 300,000 people a year in the early 1990s. Your average local's belief in what caused that attendance dip — whether because of Eureka's 1992 decision to ban tour buses from the historic loop, competition for the Goober Dollar further north in Branson, or the town's refusal to torment and ostracize their gays like decent folk — probably depends a lot on that person's politics and willingness to cherry-pick from the Book of Leviticus.
As nearly any local grayhead on Spring Street will tell you, Eureka Springs has sheltered a sizable and fairly vocal gay and lesbian population since the early 1970s, a few years after hippies fleeing the cities for mountain highs rediscovered the faded resort and moved in. Eureka held its first Gay Pride parade in 1996, and now celebrates three LGBTQ "diversity weekends" every year, the streets filling with same-sex couples and rainbow flags. It's had a domestic partnership registry since 2007, allowing any unmarried couple, gay or straight, to pay 35 bucks, sign on a dotted line and emerge with a government-printed document that says they are, in fact, two against the world. That document is worth about as much as the paper it's printed on in a court of law, but it has helped some LGBTQ folks get company-sponsored health insurance for their partners. The registry also inspired the Mississippi-based American Family Association in 2008 to produce a 28-minute, $14.95 video with the 1950s schlock-horror title of "They're Coming to Your Town," alleging that the one-time Christian haven of Eureka Springs had been the subject of a quiet coup by "homosexual activists."
In May 2014, the morning after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage, the town's compact stone courthouse issued the first legal marriage license to an LGBTQ couple in Arkansas history — two nice young women named Kristin Seaton and Jennifer Rambo, who haven't, to anybody's knowledge, taken to church burnings and busting up Christian bookstores with pickaxe handles since then. Probably too busy figuring out whose turn it is to take out the trash. Such are the things a marriage is made of.
All this is to say that unless the churches in Berryville and Cave Springs* are able to convince The Almighty to visit whirling sharknadoes and rains of molten salt on Eureka, there's no sign the town will be turning back on its commitment to the equality and defense of LGBTQ residents and visitors anytime soon.
Which brings us to Eureka's LGBTQ anti-discrimination law, Ordinance 2223, and the May 12 vote on whether it stays or goes.
In the months since it was hurriedly passed by the Eureka City Council, Ordinance 2223 has become a fight for the soul and image of Eureka Springs, straining relationships in one of the most polite places in the state: A group of Methodists who wanted to carry a banner that said "Jesus Loves Everybody" got booted out of the Easter Parade, and the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce fired its president/CEO after he issued on behalf of the chamber a statement critical of 2223, expressing concerns about the speed at which the ordinance was passed and questioning whether it would be bad for business.
Though supporters say that most of the opposition to 2223 is coming from outside the city limits and predict landslide support for the ordinance on May 12, with successful LGBTQ protection repeal efforts in Fayetteville and nearby Springfield, Mo., making national news in recent months, everybody in town seems to be holding their breath, waiting to see if Eureka will really be the pebble that breaks the tide.
If you've stuck with me this far, you probably know at least some of the story already.
Back in August 2014, after a marathon Fayetteville City Council meeting that burned far into the night, with LGBTQ people sharing their stories of housing and employment discrimination and others fearfully worrying over hypothetical pervs who might don dresses and wigs to slip into women's restrooms, the Fayetteville Council passed Ordinance 119, which extended the city's nondiscrimination protections in employment, housing and public accommodations to LGBTQ citizens, effectively making it a punishable crime for a business to discriminate because someone is gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual. In December 2014, after the ordinance was referred to the ballot — and a well-financed repeal effort that included advertising featuring Northwest Arkansas celebrity Michelle Duggar — Fayetteville voters repealed the ordinance by a margin of about 3** percent of the total votes cast.
Calls to the law office of Travis Story, the Fayetteville attorney who helped head the repeal effort against Ordinance 119, and who is involved in the effort to repeal Eureka's 2223, went unreturned at press time.
Though the victory in Fayetteville was heralded as a blow for the forces of propriety, the followers of a kind and loving God weren't through kicking gay folks in the teeth just yet. In late January, Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs*) introduced Senate Bill 202, the "Intrastate Commerce and Improvement Act." Ostensibly designed to establish uniformity in the state's anti-discrimination laws, the bill — which avoids using the words gay or lesbian, and never specifically mentions the Fayetteville ordinance — is designed to prevent any city from following Fayetteville's lead, specifically forbidding local governments from passing or enforcing any ordinance, rule or law that protects a class not already covered by the state's anti-discrimination law. Protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity are not included in that state law.
With Hester's bill loping toward eventual passage in Little Rock, the Eureka Springs City Council acted on Feb. 9, first passing a resolution declaring the city to be in opposition to SB 202, then considering Ordinance 2223, which protects people against discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in Eureka Springs based on a number of criteria, including sexual orientation and gender identity. Though Eureka Springs City Attorney Tim Weaver reportedly urged the council to move more slowly, telling aldermen that SB 202, if enacted, would probably prevent the city from actually enforcing any LGBTQ protection ordinance, the council went ahead and unanimously passed 2223 after giving the proposed ordinance three consecutive readings, bypassing a process that Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry said normally takes up to 10 weeks. The ordinance included an emergency clause, and was signed by the mayor the following morning, which meant that by lunchtime on Feb. 10, Eureka residents were living in a city with the only LGBTQ protection ordinance in the state.
A call to Weaver's office went unreturned at press time.
Though Conway later passed protections for LGBTQ city employees and Little Rock's City Board was to have voted on an ordinance to do the same thing after our press time this week, Eureka stands alone in the broadness of its ordinance, which makes it a misdemeanor for businesses to discriminate against anyone within the city limits on the basis of LGBTQ status. Alleged violators of the Eureka ordinance face fines of up to $500 per occurrence, with the mayor serving as a "Civil Rights Administrator" to investigate allegations of discrimination and dole out sanctions if warranted.
State Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) represents District 97, which includes Eureka Springs. He was a co-sponsor of SB 202, and tweeted "Glory to God!" when Fayetteville's 119 was repealed. Ballinger called Ordinance 2223 "a huge overreach" that was unneeded in the inclusive community of Eureka Springs. He said the religious community and the more liberal community had co-existed for years there, but had been divided by the ordinance.
"It's a shame that something like this would be brought up and be so divisive," Ballinger said. "I understand why they did it. They were wanting to protest the legislation that was passed. I get it. However, it doesn't seem like it's a good idea to divide a community in order to protest legislation."
Ballinger says referring the ordinance to the voters is a good idea. He said that even if Ordinance 2223 stands on May 12, the protections in it will become void in July when Act 137, the law spawned from SB 202, goes into effect.
"It doesn't essentially nullify the whole ordinance," Ballinger said. "The parts of the ordinance that are inconsistent with state law would be not applicable."
Ballinger said that while the inclusiveness of Eureka in the past means that a vote in favor of 2223 on May 12 "won't be too surprising to most people," he questions the consequences of the ordinance, which he says could lead to lawsuits.
"The reality is that the way the ordinance is written ... any preacher who refuses to do a same-sex ceremony would be guilty of a misdemeanor," Ballinger said. "My guess is if you're a preacher and it's not consistent with your belief to perform same-sex ceremonies, you're probably not going to comply with the law."
But Justice of the Peace and Eureka Springs resident Lamont Richie, the author of Ordinance 2223, said the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution already protects the clergy from being ordered to do or say anything by government, which is why he did not include an exemption for ministers. He said he's never heard of a case in which a same-sex couple tried to force a religious figure or minister to perform a marriage, and doesn't expect to.
"I don't think there would be a snowball's chance in hell that any action could be taken or would be taken against a member of the clergy," Richie said, "whether it's a member of a mainstream denomination or somebody ordained online. ... I don't believe that is a plausible argument at all."
A transplant from Houston, Richie said that he and his now-husband were seeking a place where they could feel safe and comfortable when they moved to Arkansas in 1991. They found that in Eureka. Richie said that the speed at which SB 202 was moving through the legislature forced Eureka Springs to act quickly.
"We deal with the hand that is dealt to us," Richie said. "The hand that was dealt to us was that the legislature was fast-tracking a bill that would prohibit local government to do what we did. We wanted to get something on the books as quickly as we could."
The Repeal 2223 effort has adopted many of the same tactics used in the Fayetteville repeal, including the contention (as seen on the repeal2223.com website) that "bathroom privacy" is on the line because the protection offered transgender people will allow men dressed in women's clothing to peep on or assault women in Eureka's public restrooms.
Richie called the bathroom privacy argument "fearmongering at its worst," pointing out that there is no evidence that incidents of voyeurism or assaults in public restrooms have ticked up in the hundreds of U.S. communities with LGBTQ protection ordinances.
"It doesn't happen," he said. "If somebody is comfortable, and believes that they are really a woman and dress accordingly, why would you want that person to go into a men's bathroom and vice versa? People who are transitioning or contemplating transitioning because they believe they are different than their birth certificate gender should be able to go to the bathroom they are comfortable with."
Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry said it was also the city's choice to solicit signatures to put the ordinance to a vote on May 12. Not only will that save the city money by allowing Eureka to combine its election with another measure in nearby Berryville, Berry said, it allowed 2223 supporters to control the language of the referendum. During the Fayetteville repeal effort, with advocates of repeal in control of writing the ballot title and text, many claimed the language was confusing, perhaps purposely so. A "for" vote in Fayetteville, for instance, meant a vote in favor of repeal. Under the language approved in Eureka, a "for" vote means a voter is for Ordinance 2223 and its retention.
"I thought it was in the best interest of our city and city council to go ahead and enact our own referendum on this ordinance," Berry said. "We knew that we'd be able to put in plain language what the people would be voting for, as opposed to the language that was proposed over in Fayetteville. It was confusing, and people weren't sure they were voting for or against the repeal of the ordinance."
Mickey Schneider is an alderwoman on the Eureka Springs City Council. A resident of Eureka for over 40 years, Schneider was quoted by local news outlets as saying "I dare them" when the question came up during the council vote in February of whether 2223 might spawn lawsuits from bigots. Schneider's attitude about the ordinance is a carryover from the protest marches of her youth.
"I personally have been fighting for fairness and equality for everyone for literally 50 years, and to have anyone — and I don't care if it's the state, the federal government, the mayor, I don't care who it would be — for them to say, 'We're taking away your right to demand equality?' I will fight it tooth and nail to the death," she said. "If you're human, you should be treated the same, period, end of discussion. And once you've been gassed and beaten and arrested, you tend to say, 'Bring it on, you stupid shits.' "
Eureka Springs is an eclectic town, full of eclectic shops. There's a store in Eureka that sells nothing but socks. There's a store in Eureka that sells tiny slivers of meteorites from all over the world. There is a museum and gift shop in Eureka that displays over 7,000 different frog-related items. And everything, even the corndog stand, seems to have a brass National Register of Historic Places placard on it.
Trudging up Spring Street — where one storefront serves as the headquarters for the "Keep Eureka Fair" effort, the windows plastered with pro-2223 placards and posters — the mood among shopkeepers seems to be decidedly in support of the ordinance, with very few exceptions. At the spare-bedroom-sized magic shop next to the Basin Park Hotel — named, appropriately enough, The Magic Shop — owner Barry Green said that, as an out-of-towner, he hasn't kept up with Ordinance 2223 closely enough to know whether it was needed or not. He jokingly says, however, that he does plan to get a sign for his store that says, "I will take anyone's money."
Karen Lindblad, who has lived in Eureka since 1970, owns Gazebo Books on Spring Street with her sister, Virginia. Quaint and cozy, heavy on local history and world music, the store has been open since 1976. Lindblad said she is very much in support of Ordinance 2223. The letters to the editor in the city's two newspapers, she said, show that it's been a contentious issue.
"In Eureka, we actually follow the intent of the laws of this country," she said, "which say that no one should be discriminated against. I think that's what [the ordinance] should say, 'We stand behind civil rights, period.' "
One of the few business owners who would speak on the record against Ordinance 2223 was a woman who identified herself only as Donna, the owner of Scarlett's Lingerie and Curiosities at 23 S. Main St. Online records show the store is owned by a woman named Donna Grunwald.
A born-and-raised Eurekan, Donna said her store has been in town for 27 years. During that time, she said, she has tried to treat everyone who comes into her shop with "great value, worth and respect" even those whose belief systems don't square with her own. She believes, however, that Ordinance 2223 doesn't live up to the standards of morality and integrity established by the word of God.
"My belief system is that the word of God is accurate," she said. "I love people, and I have people of every race and color come into my business and I treat them each with respect. I do not honor sin, I do not honor wickedness, and neither does the Lord God. And so, my stand is a stand of truth."
A few doors down South Main at the Ladybug Emporium, shop owner Jim Jordan predicts a landslide for 2223 on May 12. He said that if the ordinance stands, it'll send a strong message to the nation.
"Hopefully what it'll tell the rest of the country is that we're not living in the 1960s anymore, and that we recognize that your race, your sexual preference, your gender do not have anything to do with you being a good human being," he said. "This is not only about today. This is about tomorrow. We're not living in the past, and those people who are trying to muddy the waters? They're living in the past."
Local business owner Sandy Martin, who resigned from the board of the Chamber of Commerce after it put out the statement criticizing 2223, said SB 202 "snuck up on" Eureka, and reinforced the idea that small communities need to stay engaged with what's going on in the legislature.
"You can't have a tourist-dependent economy and not welcome everyone," she said. "Too, it's against what Eureka Springs has always stood for. This has always been an open, eclectic, diverse, welcoming community. We have over 450 working artists here. When you have that kind of culture and diversity, you kind of know what the character of the town is. We've always existed wonderfully together."
Martin said that if the city is able to retain 2223 on May 12, it would say to the rest of the country that winning against the forces driving intolerance is possible. Also, she noted that it would give those fighting anti-LGBTQ laws crucial legal standing when it comes time to fight those laws in court.
"It all happens at the local level and at the grass roots," she said. "The other thing we're fighting with 202 is being stripped of the right to do local ordinances like this. We know our community."
Then there is maybe the most surprising voice involved in the local debate over Ordinance 2223, even though he says it shouldn't be surprising at all: that of Jayme Brandt, who runs Twice Born, Eureka's quirky, Christian-themed T-shirt shop. Brandt designs and makes everything. One shirt available from the shop's website says: "My Creator Is Still Creating Me." Another says: "Religion Is Easy. Love Is Hard."
When over 200 supporters of Ordinance 2223 rallied at KJ's Caribe Restaurant and Cantina in Eureka on March 18, Brandt was there. He brought the crowd to tears when he spoke of learning at age 11 that his father was gay and being told, "This is the worst kind of sin" — something it took him a long time to reconcile with the meek, kind, loving man he knew.
"This is about freedom," Brandt reportedly told the crowd. "Your freedom and my freedom. If you are not free, I am not free. I say that as a Christian, and I want to protect what that means. The purity of the Christian faith has been hijacked by cowards who hide behind a thin veil of doctrine that contains so many holes. But they don't know that we can see them."
At his shop at 46 Spring St., with his two young daughters playing behind the counter, Brandt said that he has paid a price for his outspokenness. Walking the walk and talking the talk about his belief in equality included going to a Repeal 2223 rally, standing up and telling the people there — all of them devout Christians and some of them close friends — that he would be fighting to keep 2223.
"I haven't lost any friends yet, but I've definitely made some of my comfortable relationships awkward," he said. "I've met with many pastors in town privately, and I've been criticized. I've had the scriptures thrown at me like I'm wrong, numerous times. That's only made me more confident that what I'm saying is true."
At the same time, Brandt said, he has been overwhelmed by the support from what he called "the liberal side" of the issue.
"I've made a lot of new friends. A lot of them are people who've avoided our store for over 10 years because they assumed they would be judged or unwelcome, or just see things for sale that offend them. Since then, I've literally had over a hundred people come in here or contact me privately to say, 'Thank you.' "
Brandt very much believes that loving all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, is what Christ would want modern Christians to do. He is troubled by how Christianity and intolerance have become synonymous in the minds of many Americans.
"It very much bothers me. When I took that stand a couple weeks ago, I was not only doing that for the LGBTQ community, I was doing it in defense of scripture, and a defense of me as a Christian. I feel like that sort of hateful reputation that's following us everywhere we go exists because of the things we've been doing and saying. I wanted to defend the gospel, and what it means, and how it's supposed to change us."
Brandt said that while he believes 2223 will prevail May 12, he's glad he had the opportunity to help change peoples' minds on the issue, including the minds of some of those who had been dead-set against the law and the protections it offered LGBTQ people.
"With these laws, we're not talking about changing the scripture or making things once called sin into something not called sin anymore. What we're focusing on is how we treat people, and that we don't discriminate against them. It doesn't matter if they're gay or if they're straight. They should be welcome in our stores and they should be welcome in our lives. We should be loving to them. That doesn't seem like that radical of a message."
Correction: A previous version of this story neglected to mention that Ordinance 2223 required the signature of Mayor Butch Berry on Feb. 10 in order to go into effect."
*A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that Sen. Bart Hester lives in Cave City. He lives in Cave Springs. **It also mistakenly said the margin by which Fayetteville's nondiscrimination ordinance was repealed was 12 percent. It was 3 percent.
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