Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce calls for repeal of new civil rights law

Bill Bradley, chair of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, speaks Friday.

Todd Gill, Flyer staff

The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce has officially called for a repeal of a new law that would prohibit business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status.

The Civil Rights Administrator ordinance would also create a staff position to receive, investigate, and sometimes mediate complaints from residents who feel they are victims of discrimination.

The new law was passed by the City Council in August, but a group called Repeal 119 gathered enough signatures to put the ordinance on hold and force a Dec. 9 special election to determine the fate of the ordinance.

The ordinance was met with open arms from local minorities, but the law found opposition from a variety of residents, including many who said that discrimination is not a problem in Fayetteville, and that the city is already a fair-minded place.

Nearly 20 people who spoke at the City Council meeting the night the law was passed recounted personal stories where they felt discriminated against by business owners and landlords around town. Some said they were fired for being gay, and others said they live in fear that their landlords will find out they’re homosexuals and stop renting to them.

The chamber held a press conference Friday to announce its board had unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the repeal of the ordinance, and that their hope is that voters will strike down the civil rights law at the polls next month.

Board members said they felt the ordinance was written poorly and is too vague in its definition of what is prohibited.

Those sentiments echo what some landlords have said when criticizing new law.

Sue Madison, a local landlord and former Arkansas state representative and senator, said a better definition of “socioeconomic background” was needed to ensure there is no ambiguity over what is prohibited. She said the new law could be interpreted to mean landlords or banks no longer have the right to request a credit check.

City Attorney Kit Williams has said that’s not true. Socioeconomic “background,” he said, is different from socioeconomic “status.”

Williams said landlords and banks have legitimate reasons for needing to know if someone can afford their rent or loan payment. He said nobody would be in violation of the ordinance for using a credit check, requesting a pay stub, or otherwise asking for proof of ability to pay and then relying on that evidence to decide whether to loan money, extend credit, or agree to rent to an individual.

What the new law prohibits, he said, is discriminating against someone based on their long ago socioeconomic roots. In other words, someone cannot be discriminated against because they grew up in public housing even though they now have a steady job and a good credit score.

Chamber members listed a handful of other technical objections before presenting its conclusion in an embargoed press release issued Thursday:

The chamber submits to voters that it is never good public policy for any governmental entity to adopt rules, regulations, ordinances or laws that are vague, incomplete, fail to include critical definitions for prohibited acts or conduct that may be [sic] later be adjudged as criminal; base criminal prosecution on the basis of another’s “perception” of conduct, verbal or non verbal communication or attitude or that have not been completely and thoroughly debated and reviewed.

Supporters respond

Keep Fayetteville Fair, an advocacy group working to support the ordinance, issued a statement Friday morning announcing disappointment in the chamber’s decision to take an opposing stand on the divisive issue, and said the move was “out of step” with many of the most successful companies operating across the country today.

The group pointed out a recently released study by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation which found that 91 percent of Fortune 500 companies have implemented policies which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 61 percent have protections in place on the basis of gender identity.

“Companies across the United States, a great number of which operate here in Arkansas, including Walmart, have embraced anti-discrimination protections and have encountered no problems,” said Anne Shelley, spokesperson for Keep Fayetteville Fair.

From the release:

Keep Fayetteville Fair believes a vote against the repeal will allow our city to uphold our values and faith, which teaches us we’re all God’s children and that everyone should be treated with respect. The supporters of Keep Fayetteville Fair believe all folks who work hard, pay their taxes, serve in our military, and contribute to our community deserve to be treated fairly under law, including our gay and transgender neighbors.

Supporters maintained that regardless of whether the new law needs to be fine-tuned, its intent is clear and must be upheld.

“It’s simple: fairness is good for business,” said Hannah Withers, founder of Block Street Business Association. “We need to keep Fayetteville competitive. That’s why businesses across the country from Walmart to Regions Bank have adopted similar policies. They recognize fairness is good for business.”

Chapter 119, Civil Rights Ordinance

Fayetteville City Council members passed a controversial anti-discrimination ordinance at around 3:45 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 20 after nearly 10 hours of public discussion and debate inside City Hall.

The ordinance prohibits business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status. It also creates a civil rights administrator position to receive and investigate complaints from residents who feel they are victims of those specific types of discrimination. Offenders could be fined up to $500 if it is determined they violated the ordinance.

The ordinance was approved 6-2 with council members Adella Gray, Sarah Marsh, Mark Kinion, Matthew Petty, Rhonda Adams and Alan Long voting in favor of the measure. Ward 3 aldermen Justin Tennant and Martin Schoppmeyer voted against the ordinance.

A group called Repeal 119 immediately began a petitioning campaign to stop the implementation of the ordinance, and eventually turned in enough signatures to put the new law on hold and force a Dec. 9 special election to decide the fate of the ordinance.

» Read all Flyer coverage of the civil rights ordinance