On Tuesday, the city of Fayetteville will have a rare December election to consider whether to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by the Fayetteville City Council in August. The full ordinance can be read here, but in general it bans discrimination in areas such as employment, housing, and public accommodation based on “real or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, marital status, socio-economic background, religion, sexual orientation, disability and veteran status.”
Obviously, the “gender indentity, gender expression,” and “sexual orientation” is the portion of the new ordinance that has stirred up the most controversy. The ordinance is part of a broad nationwide agenda from the pro-homosexual rights group, the Human Rights campaign.
Fayetteville is a small pocket of liberalism – almost an island – in the reliably conservative Northwest Arkansas corner of the state. Despite this, various religious, political, and business leaders have spoken in favor of repealing the new ordinance.
Dr. Ronnie Floyd, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of one of the largest churches in Northwest Arkansas, Cross Church, wrote a blog post on his personal blog on Monday advocating for repeal.
“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. Fayetteville is the first city to get this issue on a public ballot, and the first city with a chance to repeal this ordinance. This is the chance for Fayetteville to make a national impact by becoming the first city to reject this offensive SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) law,” wrote Floyd.
The sentiments were echoed by Larry Page with the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council who expressed concerns the ordinance could be mimicked in other towns in Arkansas.
“The ordinance – while described as an anti-discrimination measure – is actually one to advance the homosexual agenda and grant privileges to transgendered individuals at the expense of religious liberties and freedom of conscience of believers,” wrote Page in an email to supporters listing the potential problems.
He noted that anti-discrimination suits could be filed against churches who refuse to hire a homosexual for a non-secular position or a business such as a wedding planner who refuses to service a same-sex marriage.
“Perhaps most problematic, the ordinance establishes a precedent. Other Arkansas cities – some well-intentioned and some not so well-intentioned – will mimic Fayetteville in trying to pass this really bad law,” Page wrote.
Business leaders also have supported repealing the measure. Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce CEO Steve Clark wrote a lengthy letter in November explaining the chamber’s decision to support repeal of the new ordinance.
“The Chamber’s role is to advocate for its members. This is absolutely not a pro-LGBT vs. anti-LGBT debate, though that is how it is being framed. 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. The Chamber abhors discrimination of any kind, and we will not accept the characterization that we favor any form of hatred or discriminatory behavior,” wrote Clark.
Of course, not everyone agrees. UA Chancellor David Gearhart wrote the Chamber expressing disappointment with their support for repeal.
“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. If, indeed, the law is vague and too broad, the court system of Arkansas will clarify the law in due course,” wrote Gearhart. “This has become a flash point issue for our city. The Chamber should promote harmony and prosperity, not create crisis. This has strained relations among town, gown, and individual citizens.”
The letter from Gearhart prompted a letter signed by 18 state legislators, who are also UA graduates, disappointed with his opposition to the Chamber.
“I agree that Fayetteville’s civil rights ordinance is a divisive issue, but I do not believe the blame lies with the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. The Fayetteville City Council hurt many in the community by passing a poorly drafted ordinance that was provided by an outside group to fix a non-existent problem. As an alumnus of the University of Arkansas and as a legislator, I am disappointed that you involved the University of Arkansas in the public dispute over this issue,” wrote the legislators.
We will know the result of the repeal effort on Tuesday night, but this battle could go on after that in court battles as is obvious from the statements above. It will also be interesting to see if other cities in Arkansas consider similar ordinances.
UPDATE – After a strong showing from the “Against Repeal” voters in early voting, the “For Repeal” voters carried election day to win the repeal effort. Final tally was 7,523 for repeal to 7,040 against repeal.