Arkansas Communities Say Yes To LGBT Rights In Defiance Of State’s Bigotry

Even conservative Arkansas is capable of change — its people, not its government. On Tuesday, two localities gave the statehouse a lesson in what leadership should look like by passing measures that support LGBT rights.

In tiny Eureka Springs, a town of 2,000 in the Ozark Mountains, 70% of voters approved an anti-discrimination ordinance. The law had already been adopted by the town council, but religious conservatives insisted that the issue be put to the voters. Now they have a definitive answer. As gay rights leader Tippi McCullough, of the Arkansas Stonewall Democrats, put it:

Attitudes are changing in Arkansas, just as elsewhere. People are seeing that these measures don’t harm anyone. [source]

Granted, Eureka Springs is one of the more liberal towns in Arkansas. As a popular tourist destination, it’s mindful of its reputation, plus a significant portion of the population is gay. After Arkansas’ ban on gay marriage was struck down in court, Eureka Springs hosted the first gay wedding in the state.

The site of Tuesday’s second victory, however, is Pulaski County, home to the state capital, Little Rock. The county’s governing body, known as the quorum court, gave initial approval to a measure that not only prohibits the county from engaging in hiring discrimination, but also the vendors that do business with Pulaski County.

All of this is part of a greater backlash against anti-gay bigotry, but it’s also a rebellion specifically against the state government. In February, the legislature passed Act 137. The bill prohibited local governments from adopting laws that ban discrimination against gays.

The bill’s sponsors didn’t have enough votes to also pass an emergency clause, which would have made the measure effective immediately. As a result, it won’t take effect until July 22nd.

Arkansas’ localities then introduced the legislature to the world of unintended consequences. Many of these local governments saw that the gay rights train was building up steam and jumped on board, passing new laws before the July deadline.

The cities of Conway, Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Hot Springs all have new ordinances on the books, passed after Act 137 was approved. This, in spite of the fact that the act tried to prevent such actions — forbids the grandfathering in of any local laws adopted during the act’s waiting period.

Jerry Cox, president of a ‘traditional family values’ organization in Little Rock known as the Family Council, said:

As soon as that law goes into effect, any local law that conflicts with that simply would not be enforced. [source]

Wishful thinking, Jerry. The localities appear to have every intention of enforcing their new laws and think they have legal justification for doing so.

Act 137 says:

A county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. [source]

Little Rock City Attorney Thomas Carpenter pointed out that, while LGBT individuals aren’t protected under anti-discrimination statutes, a state law that does protect them as a class already exists. It’s an anti-bullying law. City Councilwoman Kathy Webb agreed, saying:

[Act 137] is not specific — it doesn’t say the Arkansas civil rights law. [source]

The message that these communities is sending to the state is clear — they want to participate in the larger world. Commerce, tourism, and the appeal of their universities all depend on it.

The message may be getting through. One of the sponsors of the bill, Rep. Bob Ballinger, thinks the cities’ actions are a mistake and will result in litigation — an outcome that the cities seem to be counting on. But Ballinger also said:

Obviously, there’s a bit of a cultural phenomenon going on. Eventually,  there’s going to be a balance that’s struck that will end up being livable for a majority of the people in the state. [source]

Eventually, everyone will have their rights enforced. The larger communities of the state are providing the leadership to guarantee it. At that point, the rest of the people in the state will have no choice but to live with it.

Feature photo via Out Naturally Facebook page.