Eureka Springs quickly passes anti-prejudice law

Posted: February 10, 2015 at 1 a.m.
Updated: February 9, 2015 at 11:50 p.m.

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Aldermen in this tourist town passed an ordinance Monday night making it illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in matters concerning employment, housing, business and public accommodations.

Ordinance 2223 was rushed through three readings at Monday's meeting so it would become city law before a bill in the state Legislature passes making the creation or enforcement of such ordinances illegal.

Council member James DeVito said it was imperative to pass the ordinance Monday because Senate Bill 202 passed on the Senate floor that day and is on its way to the state House of Representatives.

"We passed the first domestic-partnership law in the state, married the first same-sex couples in the state. Yet as a community, we don't have laws to protect those people," DeVito told the council. "So I think it is imperative that we pass this in three readings."

The ordinance passed unanimously on all three readings, as did a resolution opposing SB202. The council also passed an emergency clause to put the new ordinance into effect as soon as possible.

Eureka Springs Mayor Robert D. "Butch" Berry said he'll sign the ordinance today or Wednesday after document changes requested by the council have been made and a fresh copy of the eight-page ordinance is available. When that happens, Eureka Springs will become the only city in Arkansas with such an ordinance.

"That's exciting for them, but it's unfortunate," said state Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville. "It's not going to work."

Ballinger is sponsoring SB202 in the House. He said it'll go before the City, County and Local Affairs Committee on Thursday and could be on the House floor as early as Monday.

"This bill trumps over municipal law," Ballinger said late Monday after hearing of the council's action. Eureka Springs is in Ballinger's House District 97.

SB202 passed 24-8 on the Senate floor Monday. SB202 says its purpose "is to improve intrastate commerce by ensuring that businesses, organizations and employers doing business in the state are subject to uniform nondiscrimination laws and obligations."

State Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, who drafted SB202, said he expects the bill to pass in the House and be on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's desk for his signature in two weeks.

"I do believe the passage of SB202 would nullify any current civil-rights ordinances in the state," Hester said via email.

The Eureka Springs ordinance specifically prohibits discrimination based on "real or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, age (if 18 years or older), gender, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, marital status, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, disability or veteran status."

Fayetteville's City Council passed a similar ordinance on Aug. 20, but it was repealed in a citywide vote Dec. 9.

The Eureka Springs City Council considered an anti-discrimination ordinance in September, but it was voted down 3-2, with some council members saying the law was unnecessary in such an open-minded city. Since then, the ordinance has been redrafted and a new alderman is on the council.

Carroll County Justice of the Peace Lamont Richie, a former lawyer who lives in Eureka Springs, said he drafted the new ordinance based on the one in Fayetteville. A major difference, he said, is that Fayetteville's ordinance called for a separate civil-rights administrator. According to the Eureka Springs ordinance, the mayor will also serve as the civil-rights administrator.

Richie sent a letter to the mayor and City Council on Saturday saying that in Arkansas it is "perfectly legal to deny employment, housing and services of any kind based on someone's sexual orientation or gender identity."

The city's new ordinance would change that, he wrote.

At Monday's council meeting, City Attorney Tim Weaver said SB202 is written to prevent the enforcement of city ordinances like the one the council was discussing.

DeVito and Alderman David Mitchell said they prefer passing the ordinance before the state passes its law, even if the law prohibits enforcement of the ordinance.

"I still feel more comfortable in reading it and passing it and letting the cards fall where they may," Mitchell told the council.

Weaver said passage of the ordinance could invite a legal challenge.

Council member Mickey Schneider asked if Weaver meant the city would likely be sued by the state.

"I'm not saying the state's going to sue you," said Weaver. "It's more likely to come from a right-wing group."

"That's even better!" said Schneider. "Bring it on!"

Under the Eureka Springs ordinance, fines for violations range from $100 to $500.

Eureka Springs is often at the vanguard of gay-rights issues in Arkansas. The first same-sex marriage licenses in Arkansas were issued in Eureka Springs in May. The city has had a domestic partnership registry since 2007 and has made health insurance coverage available for domestic partners of city employees since 2011.

On the Out in Eureka visitors website, gayeurekasprings.com, Eureka Springs is touted as the Gay Capital of the Ozarks.

Metro on 02/10/2015