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EUREKA SPRINGS -- The chief executive officer of the Great Passion Play said he's against discrimination, but he said this city's anti-discrimination ordinance is a bad law that needs to be repealed.

Randall Christy said Eureka Springs would be better off with a resolution that simply says "We oppose discrimination," rather than the eight-page Ordinance 2223, which was passed by the City Council on Feb. 9 i to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

Eureka Springs is the only city in Arkansas with such a law.

Christy said the ordinance exempts schools, government agencies and "institutions," without defining what institutions are. He said it also requires all contractors doing business with the city to follow the law, and that's "unenforceable." How would the city know if contractors in other cities and states are following the Eureka Springs law, he asked.

He said businesses that conduct religious ceremonies and wedding service providers should be exempt from the ordinance.

"It should exempt churches because of their religious beliefs," he said. "People who exercise religious ceremonies should be exempt from that."

Christy, who's also president of The Gospel Station Network of Ada, Okla., sent a mass email Thursday asking Christians to come to a "take back this city" meeting at noon Friday at First Christian Church in Eureka Springs. About 45 people attended the meeting.

Christy told the crowd he wanted Christians to become more involved in business and government in Eureka Springs. When he asked how many in the crowd live in Eureka Springs, only about five raised their hands. Candidates can't run for City Council if they don't live in the city.

"That's one of the big issues," Christy said after the meeting. "So many of these people live just outside the city limits."

During the meeting, Christy said he'd gotten some "push back" for calling it a "take back this city" meeting. Christy said he didn't mind.

"What I meant was every city needs Jesus Christ," Christy told the crowd. "It means spiritually let's share Jesus with everybody in Eureka Springs"

Alderman James DeVito, who didn't attend the meeting, said he felt the "take back this city" tag line on Christy's email was "divisive."

"Nobody has owned Eureka Springs since the day it was founded," DeVito said. "I feel it draws a line in the sand. I feel it pits one side against the other. It creates a warlike atmosphere. I don't feel things need to come to that. It's a good catchphrase but it creates ill will."

DeVito said Eureka Springs can be a destination for Christians and people with alternative lifestyles.

"We all can live here and get along," he said.

Christy made similar statements during his speech Friday.

"Most of all, we are trying to unify our community," he said. "Every walk of life, every lifestyle, every background. We all live here. And God made us all. There are obviously things that divide us in our opinions and our way of life, but we could come together as Christians and have a stronger voice in Eureka Springs."

Christy said afterward that tourism is down in Eureka Springs in part because factions there are always fighting.

"If we keep fighting in Eureka Springs, our town will die," he said. "It's always in the media. People want to avoid controversy."

At Friday's meeting, Christy announced the Eureka Springs Christian Alliance was being formed. It will facilitate communication with an email database and Facebook page, he said.

According to a form handed out to potential members, the alliance intends to "be actively involved in political and promotional activities and/or elected offices that affect the Eureka Springs area."

Members are asked to be involved in the community and "represent Christ in our private right to vote on issues and candidates that affect our area."

Christy also praised the work of Mike Bishop, who was fired March 2 from his job as president and chief executive officer of the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce. Bishop said he was fired "mostly" because of a "position statement" the chamber put out opposing Ordinance 2223.

Chamber board Chairman Allen Huffman also resigned around the same time. Cathy Handley replaced Huffman as board chairman.

Bishop's wife Dale told the crowd six chamber members cancelled their memberships after the position statement came out, including the Eureka Springs Gay Business Guild.

Sandy Martin, a member of the chamber board, said she quit the chamber over the position statement. Martin owns Procomm Eureka, a large-format printing and marketing business.

In the position statement, Bishop said the public wasn't given a chance to weigh in on the ordinance before it was passed in three consecutive readings at one City Council meeting. The ordinance was added to the agenda after the Feb. 9 meeting started. Bishop wrote the ordinance left too many unknowns for the business community.

A group called Repeal 2223 has been gathering signatures to force a referendum on the ordinance.

Instead of waiting until Repeal 2223 gathered the 96 signatures necessary to call for a referendum, the City Council approved a special election for May 12.

By calling for the election -- instead of being forced to have it by referendum petition -- the council can control the ballot wording, DeVito said.

Ordinance 2223 prohibits discrimination against people based on "real or perceived" sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or socioeconomic background.

The council rushed the ordinance through three readings at a Feb. 9 meeting -- passing it unanimously each time -- so it would become law before Senate Bill 202, which prevents Arkansas cities and counties from enacting or enforcing such ordinances.

SB202 was approved by the state Legislature and is now Act 137 of 2015. It will go into effect 90 days after the current legislative session ends.

Until then, Eureka Springs' Ordinance 2223 is city law, said Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry.

"It will stay on the books, so when the courts rule that SB202 is unconstitutional, it will still be in effect," Berry said.

A similar ordinance was passed by Fayetteville's City Council last year, but it was repealed in a city vote Dec. 9 after the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce waged a vigorous campaign against it.

A group supporting Ordinance 2223 plans to meet Wednesday night in Eureka Springs.

NW News on 03/07/2015

Print Headline: Passion Play CEO plans to 'take back' Eureka Springs

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