In a special election that was watched outside the city and state, Fayetteville voters repealed an ordinance approved earlier in 2014 by the city council designed to make it illegal to discriminate against an individual based on their sexual orientation.
Unofficial results from the Washington County Clerk’s office showed that 51.66% (7,523) voted for repeal of the controversial ordinance and 48.34% (7,040) voted against repeal.
The ordinance pitted the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce against Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan and University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart.
After the chamber board voted to support repeal of the ordinance, Chamber President and CEO Steve Clark said support of the repeal had nothing to do with being against the LGBT community and instead was standing against a law that he said was vague and non-specific in what constitutes discrimination.
"This is absolutely not a pro-LGBT vs. anti-LGBT debate, though that is how it is being framed," he said in a Nov. 10 memo. "The ordinance as it was drafted is unworkable and unacceptable. If we stand by and ignore the impact of the legal deficiencies in the ordinance, in the next few years our members will bear the burden of funding the inevitable litigation necessary to clarify, amend, or overturn the law as it has been passed."
Mayor Jordan called for the chamber to rescind its decision to support repeal. Jordan is an ex-officio member of the Chamber's board of directors, and said he was not notified of the meeting.
Gearhart said he too as an ex-officio member of the board was not advised of the chamber’s meeting to vote on supporting repeal. Gearhart, head of one of the largest employers in the city and county, said the vote should proceed without Chamber interference.
"Many people favor allowing the citizens of Fayetteville to decide the issue at the ballot box in December, rather than having pressure exerted by the Chamber," he wrote. "If, indeed, the law is vague and too broad, the court system of Arkansas will clarify the law in due course."
Ronnie Floyd, pastor of a Springdale church that is one of the largest in Northwest Arkansas, spoke out in recent days to urge Fayetteville voters to repeal the ordinance. In a Dec. 8 blog post, Floyd said the vote is also about protecting religious freedoms.
“This is the nation’s current battleground on which to stand for religious freedom. Fayetteville, please rise up and send a clear and compelling message to all those propagating this agenda – that the people of Fayetteville will stand up and protect our religious freedoms,” said Floyd, who is also serving as president of Southern Baptist Convention – a group which represents almost 16 million Baptist church members.
Kendra Johnson, director of Arkansas’ Human Rights Campaign affiliate, said the vote was disappointing but part of the effort to move the issue forward. The national HRC was a leader in raising money and campaigning to oppose repeal.
"Tonight's vote is a deeply disappointing reminder that equality doesn't always move forward in a straight line. Make no mistake about it, tonight's election results—and the repeal of this ordinance — will inflict direct harm on LGBT Arkansans, their families and their friends,” Johnson said in a statement. “But we remain convinced that the progress of fairness will continue despite this result. All Arkansans should have the legal right to live safely within their communities, homes and workplaces, and the day will come soon when LGBT young people will wake up in this state and enjoy true equality under the law. We'll keep up the fight until that dream is achieved.”
Earlier this year the Human Rights Campaign conducted the largest survey of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi, trans-gendered) individuals in Arkansas' history. According to survey results, 25% of all respondents reported employment discrimination, while another 37% described harassment in the workplace. The report from HRC notes that 38% of LGBT households earning less than $45,000 annually have experienced workplace harassment, while 43% of respondents said they had been harassed at "public establishments."