Dixie Discrimination: Ark. Law Attacking LGBT Protections Goes Into Effect

From Americans United's Wall of Separation blog:

Three Arkansas counties have refused to drop ordinances that ban anti-gay discrimination, despite a new state law designed to block them from enforcing the laws. The Associated Press (AP) reports that Little Rock, Hot Springs and  Pulaski County are keeping the ordinances; a fourth municipality, Eureka Springs, has not yet reached a decision.

Officials say they’re keeping the laws because they have the support of local business communities.

“I haven't heard from anyone who has said we won't bid on city services if we have to check the box,” Hot Springs city manager David Watkins told the AP. “I don't really anticipate any pushback because I can't imagine a business wanting to do business with public money basically saying they will discriminate against the LGBT community.”

“I don't see this as an issue,” added Eureka Springs Mayor Butch Berry. “Eureka Springs has always been an open-minded and been accepting of people, so we've never had any complaints prior to this ordinance.”

Further complicating the issue for officials like Berry and Watkins: Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge hasn’t clarified whether or not the new state law can block existing ordinances—or whether it simply prevents new ones from taking effect.

One of the bill’s authors, however, seems to think it trumps those ordinances. State Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Eureka Springs) told the AP that he’s convinced municipalities don’t really intend to enforce the laws.

“I think they'd rather have the symbol of the ordinance on the books and not enforce it than face a legal challenge,” Ballinger said.

And a legal challenge may indeed be forthcoming. The AP also reports that the Arkansas Family Council, a Religious Right group based in Little Rock and affiliated with the Family Research Council, says it’s “probably months away” from a lawsuit against municipalities that attempt to enforce the ordinances.

Arkansas state law doesn’t prohibit anti-gay discrimination, and federal law doesn’t yet consider LGBT people a protected class, which leaves municipalities like Hot Springs, Little Rock and Pulaski County in murky legal territory. It’s worth noting, though, that local businesses themselves strongly support the laws; those who seek to discriminate are, as usual, a minority.

Nationally, roughly two-thirds of all small business owners say that they don’t think they should have the legal right to refuse service to LGBT people. Break it down into the relevant demographic categories, and the trend alters little: 62 percent of self-identified Christian business owners oppose the right to refuse service. That’s still a clear majority.

Set aside, for a moment, the ethics of demanding the right to refuse service; elected officials like Ballinger can’t even claim they’re acting at the behest of public opinion. Public opinion is squarely at odds with the campaign to protect discrimination, and there’s no evidence that trend is likely to change soon.

If the Arkansas Family Council does indeed challenge a municipality over its anti-discrimination laws, the case will highlight the ever-growing gulf between the Religious Right’s extreme agenda, and the sensibilities of mainstream Americans. And though it isn’t clear how the courts will rule, we do know how they should rule: In favor of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to religious liberty but not the right to discriminate.