Proposed bill would prohibit future civil rights ordinances

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs (right), faces off with Fayetteville Alderman Matthew Petty (left), in a December debate moderated by 5NEWS managing editor Larry Henry.

A bill proposed Monday in the Arkansas Legislature would prohibit cities and counties from passing laws that offer protections based on sexual orientation or any other basis not contained in state law.

Bart Hester

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, filed Senate Bill 202 in reaction to Fayetteville’s contentions Civil Rights Administration Ordinance which was eventually repealed 52 percent to 48 percent by voters in a special election in December. The law would have prohibited business owners and landlords from unjustly firing or evicting someone for being gay or any of several other characteristics.

Hester was a strong opponent of the law. He participated in a brief December debate about the ordinance alongside Fayetteville Alderman Matthew Petty in a “5NEWS This Morning” segment.

Hester claimed the law would inhibit religion by forcing a pastor to perform gay marriages, an opinion dismissed by Petty.

“In no way would this ordinance ever require any pastor to issue same-sex marriages,” said Petty. “In fact, there’s a general religious exemption. Anyone who claims that they need to violate the ordinance on the basis of religion is exempted from any penalties whatsoever.”

Human Rights Campaign officials issued a statement condemning Hester’s proposal, calling it a “deeply flawed bill” that would prevent LGBT Arkansans from being able to live their lives free from fear or discrimination.

“This is an attack on liberty and democracy, pure and simple,” said Kendra R. Johnson, HRC Arkansas state director. “Local leaders in Arkansas should be allowed to choose what’s right for their own city or town. It’s crystal clear that the motivation for this bill is to stifle local efforts to advance equality for LGBT Arkansans. Not only is it wrong, this explicit attempt at legislative overreach is discriminatory, dangerous, and fundamentally un-American.”

From HRC Arkansas:

According to a 2014 survey of LGBT people in Arkansas (PDF), almost 60 percent of respondents have called the state home for more than 20 years. However, a quarter of those answering the survey have experienced employment discrimination, 37 percent have experienced harassment at work, and half have experienced harassment on the street.

“LGBT Arkansans currently have no state or municipal level protections in housing, workplace, or public accommodations,” said Johnson. “It remains perfectly legal under Arkansas law to fire LGBT people from their jobs, refuse to rent to them, or to kick them out of a restaurant or hotel. Senate Bill 202 ensures this form of discrimination in Arkansas will remain the law of the land.”