Judge denies effort to stop civil rights election

An effort to stop a public vote on Fayetteville’s proposed Uniform Civil Rights Protection ordinance has failed.

Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin on Thursday denied a motion seeking a permanent injunction that would prevent the Sept. 8 special election.

An attorney representating Protect Fayetteville, a group advocating against passage of the ordinance, filed a lawsuit Monday afternoon challenging the validity of the new law.

The suit was filed less than 18 hours before early voting was set to begin.

A second motion was filed Tuesday, after Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued an opinion stating that she thinks any new civil rights ordinances passed in Arkansas are unenforceable.

“The plaintiffs failed to pursue their petitions expeditiously,” said Martin in his order. “Waiting until the day before voting began to file the petition rendered it impossible for the court to fulfill (its) requirement.”

A hearing set Friday has been canceled.

City Attorney Kit Williams said earlier this year he expects the ordinance to be challenged by a lawsuit because of a recently passed state law, called the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act (Act 37), which bans cities and counties from enacting or enforcing “an ordinance, resolution, rule or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”

Williams said despite the new legislation, he doesn’t believe the new ordinance conflicts with state law. He referenced an argument used by Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter when Little Rock was considering a civil rights ordinance in April. Carpenter cited portions of Title 6, Chapter 18 of Arkansas Code, which prohibit bullying in public schools on the basis of several classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity.

Because those protected classes already exist, Carpenter opined, a municipality would not be in violation of Act 37 by adopting nondiscrimination policies based on those classes.

Williams said Carpenter’s arguments would also apply to the new law in Fayetteville.

“It won’t be a slam dunk…but I’m fully prepared to defend this,” said Williams.