Fayetteville voters will decide Dec. 9 whether to repeal a civil rights ordinance that provides small penalties for discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation based on race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, sex, veterans status, gender identity or sexual orientation.
They need look no farther than Starkville, Miss., for evidence that the proper choice is to Keep Fayetteville Fair and vote against repeal of the ordinance.
Comments by opponents to the contrary, the Fayettteville ordinance doesn’t apply to religious groups or restrooms.
The ordinance is controversial because it discourages discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. There are people — particularly from conservative churches — who want to preserve the right to legally discriminate against LGBT people. I suspect some would like to discriminate against some of the other listed categories, but federal law covers race, gender, religion, the disabled, veterans and others.
The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce has emerged as a leader of the fight to preserve legal discrimination . It has done so dishonestly by implying opposition of the chancellor of the University of Arkansas, David Gearhart, and even Mayor Lioneld Jordan, an outspoken supporter of fairness. Ironically, the Chamber has emerged as a leader of the legal discrimination movement at the same time the Chamber is seeking to fatten its profits by seeking the power to run the city Advertising and Promotion Commission. That is the agency that uses tax money to persuade the world that Fayetteville is a great place to visit and build a business.
Which brings us to Starkville, Miss. It was the subject of a laudatory feature in the Saturday New York Times, shortly before a big football game between hometown Mississippi State and Ole Miss. State lost, sorry to say. But you couldn’t buy advertising like Starkville got from the New York Times. Once derided as Stark Vegas — an ironic commentary on its sleepy reputation — Starkville now waves the Stark Vegas banner proudly and has lots to show for itself.
Football has been good for Starkville. But that’s not all.
It is a welcoming community, whether you are a would-be entrepreneur, a retiree, or a small-town high school recruit for whom even SEC towns like Athens, Ga., or Tuscaloosa, Ala., might have a little too much going on.
There’s a great land-grant university whose strengths include a respected agriculture component. Sound like Fayetteville? This doesn’t sound like some elements of Fayetteville:.
The town’s quiet progressivism, such as recognizing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens as a class that may not be discriminated against, matched its university, [Mayor Parker] Wiseman said.
… Speaking in the husk of what next year will be christened the new city hall, Wiseman, a Democrat, characterized the town as a triumph of the technocratic New South, with $100 million in active construction, research and entrepreneurship centers that seek to exploit the university’s engineering talent, and a walkable neighborhood of townhouses and bars near campus that has been lauded by the Congress for the New Urbanism, an urban design organization.
“When you have good teams, it allows you to elevate the profile of the university and also the community,” Wiseman said.
Yes, Starkville has a non-discrimination ordinance, passed in January 2014. It follows the same model Fayetteville followed with help from the Human Rights Campaign. The outline been adopted in, among others, Shreveport, New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso and, in Mississippi, Oxford, Waveland, Hattiesburg and Jackson. Some or resolutiongs, not ordinances. But even a resolution was beaten in Fayetteville years ago by the same forces now throwing up a legal smokescreen on the new ordinance.
Opponents of these ordinances say they are not necessary. Those who say this tuned out stories of discrimination by dozens of speakers at the marathon public hearing on Fayetteville’s ordinance. They tuned out the landlord who testified before the Fayetteville Council that he wanted the ability to discriminate in rentals. Various providers of services said they wanted to discriminate (citing religion) on who they served. Forget the noble wedding cake baker and wedding photographer, so often cited. To give them the right to discriminate against a specified group of people is to give it to every restaurant, hotel and retail store; every apartment complex; every employer in the city.
The ordinance is mostly symbolic. It creates no enforcement agency. Complaints first are mediated. Due process of law and consideration by an impartial judge would decide a penalty if a case of discrimination — based on a probable cause finding — actually occurred. Even then, a violation is a minor status offense, maximum penalty a $500 fine.
The question about Fayetteville’s Ordinance 119 could not have been put in more stark terms than the New York Times article about Starkville. Is Fayetteville a welcoming city, like Starkville? Or is it a city determined to preserve legal discrimination against certain disfavored classes of people? Which city is likely to be more attractive to a creative business?
A welcoming city would preserve Ordinance 119. No one who treats all equally need fear fallout.
For more reading:
Starkville’s Mayor Parker Wiseman talks about his city’s ordinance in an interview with the Starkville Free Press. It mirrors Mississippi State’s own anti-discrimination policy (the University of Arkansas has one, too). A broad nondiscrimination statement is viewed as a plus when seeking federal grants, Starkville leaders say. Needless to say, the reverse is also true.
You know, this is an interesting story. Actually, this came about as a suggestion from our chief administrative officer, Taylor Adams. He wasn’t necessarily suggesting this for the purpose of breaking new ground so much as he was suggesting it as a means of facilitating the more competitive grant applications for the city and federal programs. He worked previously at (Mississippi State University) prior to coming to the city. The university has almost the exact same policy (as the anti-discrimination resolution) for years, so that’s something he was familiar with. So, working in federal programs as he does with the city, you know, he said, “Grants often will reward having the broadest possible statement of nondiscrimination. It would be beneficial for us if we could adopt a very broad, all-encompassing statement of nondiscrimination. And a good model, or a place to start, is the policy that the university has adopted.”
Now, I knew because the policy included the LGBT community that it was going to generate some publicity. I would not have predicted that it was going to generate as much publicity as it did because that’s probably one of the top two or three most significant media events we’ve had since I’ve been doing this, from an external standpoint. It was covered nationally, which was really gratifying. You know, the fact that Starkville was in the news outside of Starkville, and we were being praised for breaking new ground from a nondiscrimination standpoint. I don’t think it’s ever anything but a great day for your community when members of the press and advocacy organizations are praising your community for being an environment that tolerates all people and does not tolerate discrimination in any form whatsoever. It turned out to be a really, really positive development for us.