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.
It’s all about the gays. Sexual orientation isn’t protected under federal and state civil rights laws. Fayetteville recently became one of many cities around the country to add a small measure of protection — a maximum $500 fine that is mostly symbolic, given the lack of administration to enforce the law and the due process required to reach a trial.
The ordinance says Fayetteville welcomes all. Conservative church groups don’t. They support legal discrimination. So, too, do many Republican legislators. Eighteen of them have hinted at retribution against University of Arkansas Chancellor David Gearhart for speaking out against a Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce resolution condemning the ordinance.
Contrary to overheated opponents, the ordinance isn’t about bathrooms or restricting the practice of religion. Nor is it meant to legalize topless women, as one local Baptist preacher claimed.
It’s about brotherly love. It’s about whether Fayetteville can hold its head up with Starkville, Miss.
Starkville, also a once-bucolic place home to a land grant university with a big Ag school, has a growing national reputation. The New York Times noted over the weekend that, along with a fine football team, “Stark Vegas” was living up to its ironic nickname.
It’s universally viewed as a welcoming place. It received flattering attention Saturday in the New York Times.
“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.”
Would a city rather have that publicity or a national news article that voters had rolled back civil rights protections? By the way, there was no mention of restroom incursions in Starkville.
Irony abounds in Fayetteville. The Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, a nominal promoter of the city, leads a pro-discrimination campaign. It is doing this at the same time it has been lobbying to be paid a fee out of city tax money to manage the city Advertising and Promotion Commission. What would be the new slogan? A city not too busy to hate?
Other cities with nondiscrimination ordinances or resolutions include Shreveport, New Orleans, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso and, in Mississippi, Oxford, Waveland and Hattiesburg. Even a resolution has failed before in Fayetteville, thanks to some of the same business and church forces now leading the charge against the more meaningful ordinance. The protestations of Steve Clark, Chamber president, about his love-filled heart will ring hollow after a second city vote endorsing discrimination.
Opponents say the ordinance is unnecessary. They didn’t hear the testimony about discrimination experiences – and some explicitly expressed desires to be able to discriminate — at the marathon City Council hearing. Consider the wedding photographer — much beloved symbol of opponents — with a religious objection to photographing a gay couple. He or she is, if anything, an argument for the ordinance. If a photographer may choose to discriminate, so might a Walmart store manager, a hotel desk clerk, a restaurant maître d’ or a sporting goods store or insurance agent. Would we protect a photographer who refused to work for an interracial couple?
For legal discrimination or against it. There is no other question on Tuesday’s ballot in Fayetteville.