Arkansas cities worried about business fallout push back against state laws cast as anti-gay

After the state faced widespread backlash over measures critics cast as anti-gay, several Arkansas cities worried about the economic fallout are challenging the new laws by expanding their anti-discrimination protections.

The moves range from one city asking voters whether to defy a state law placing limits on local anti-discrimination ordinances to others expanding their own hiring policies to include sexual orientation and gender orientation. The state's largest city of Little Rock is considering whether to require all its contractors to include anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The changes come after lawmakers approved a religious objections bill that was revamped in response to criticism from some of the state's largest employers — including mega-retailer Wal-Mart — that an initial version endorsed discrimination against gays and lesbians. Arkansas earlier this year also became the second state after Tennessee to bar local governments from expanding anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The law prohibits local ordinances from prohibiting discrimination on a basis not recognized by the state, and Arkansas is among 29 states that don't include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws. The new state law doesn't apply to a city and county's own hiring policies, which Little Rock's ordinance would cover. The Little Rock proposal goes a step further with the restriction on anyone who contracts with the city.

Supporters say the move is needed to send a message to businesses that may be scared off by the new laws.

"I'm doing everything I can as a mayor to tell them the city of Little Rock and the citizens of Little Rock in no way believe that's the focus we should have," said Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola. "The city's open for business, and is welcoming people of all diversity."

The proposal going before Little Rock's city board Tuesday could prompt a legal challenge with the new requirement for city vendors. Little Rock's attorney said he believes the provision is legal, noting that other state laws dealing with cyberbullying and domestic violence shelters prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But the state senator behind the Arkansas law, which is set to take effect in late July, said he believes it at least goes against the spirit of the measure he introduced.

"I feel like it runs counter to what our intent was," Republican Sen. Bart Hester said. "Our intent was to have equality where businesses can operate fluidly throughout the state."

Supporters of the proposal are casting it as a business friendly issue, and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce says it backs the measure. City Director Kathy Webb, who worked on the ordinance, said the criticism major companies such as Apple and Wal-Mart had to the initial religious objections measures in Arkansas and Indiana underscore the need for an anti-discrimination message at the local level.

"When you look at the business community's response to that, I think it would be time to do something because the business community is incredibly supportive of non-discrimination policies," said Webb, who was the first openly gay member of the state Legislature.

Another fight over the anti-discrimination limits is looming May 12 , when residents in of Eureka Springs — a popular tourist destination in northwest Arkansas — will vote on an ordinance prohibiting the city and businesses from discriminating against LGBT people. Eureka Springs' city council approved the ordinance in February, as state lawmakers were considering the limits on local protections, and later called a referendum on whether to keep the measure in place.

Even if voters decide to keep the ordinance, the new law would ban the city from enforcing it.

Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry said he viewed the new law as infringing on local government and said it ran counter to the promises many in the Republican-led Legislature made during past campaigns.

"I think for a group of lawmakers who claim there is too much government interference in our lives already, it's pretty hypocritical for them to pass more restrictions on cities," Berry said.

At least two other central Arkansas cities — Conway and North Little Rock — have approved more scaled-back ordinances expanding workplace discrimination protections to LGBT city employees. Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said he hoped the new protections would send a message to the type of technology firms he's trying to attract to his city, located 30 miles north of Little Rock.

"It's awfully hard for us to carve out a niche as a tech industry city in a state that looks like it's actively promoting a discriminatory legal structure," Townsell said.


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