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Civil Rights

Arkansas LGBT Anti-Discrimination Law Trashed

— February 27, 2017

On Thursday, Supreme Court justices struck down an Arkansas LGBT anti-discrimination law.

The city had created an ordinance banning discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Several other liberal communities in northwest Arkansas followed suit after a controversial bill was signed into law two years ago. The legislation had made it illegal for townships and cities to create protections not already outlined by the state.

Some detractors of the Arkansas law claim it’s engineered specifically to enable discrimination against the LGBT community. Governor Asa Hutchinson approved the measure shortly after being elected in 2015 amidst a national outcry. Although the politician refused to sign the bill at first, he also declined to use the veto power to prevent it from becoming effective. He later signed a reworked version of the same into law in April. The legislation – formerly SB 202 – was proclaimed by conservatives to be a victory for religion freedom.

Arkansas Asa Hutchinson signing the 2015 religious freedom bill into law; image courtesy of Brian Chillson, AP
Arkansas Asa Hutchinson signing the 2015 religious freedom bill into law; image courtesy of Brian Chillson, AP

Arkansas State Senator Bart Hester was vocal about how the bill would allow his constituents to practice what they preach.

“[It’s] for the individual to decide for themselves,” Hester said in 2015. “They cannot discriminate against an individual. They can discriminate against a message they don’t feel comfortable with.”

Hester likened businesses being obligated to serve LGBT customers to asking “a Jewish baker to put a Nazi swastika on a cake.”

Nearby Indiana had passed a nearly-identical “religious freedom” law before Arkansas. However, the recent Supreme Court ruling has changed the name of the game for residents of The Natural State. While the striking down of Fayetteville’s ordinances doesn’t render the regulations of other towns and cities moot, it does set a disturbing precedent.

Civil rights representatives and activists have said they’ll now focus on fighting the constitutionality of the Arkansas prohibition in lower courts. Last year’s nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage lends credence to the idea that prejudice against gays and lesbians shouldn’t be tolerable in the twenty-first century.

The Washington Post summarized the legal opinion of the Supreme Court, noting the justices had written other state laws regarding bullying couldn’t be related to anti-discrimination law without creating “new protected classes.” Columnist Andrew DeMillo mentioned that such an endeavor ran counter to the intent of the religious freedom law passed in 2015.

“Fayetteville’s ordinance violates the plain wording of Act 137 by extending discrimination laws in the city of Fayetteville to include two classifications not previously included under state law,” the justices wrote. “This necessarily creates a nondiscrimination law and obligation in the city of Fayetteville that does not exist under state law.”

No matter how unfair the ruling may be from an ethical and secular perspective, it does align with Arkansas law.

The justices said they couldn’t comment on the law’s constitutionality or lack thereof without it having first been challenged in a lower court. Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams said he plans to fight the 2015 legislation directly.

Tennessee and North Carolina also bar communities from incorporating ordinances which protect the rights of LGBT citizens.


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