Arkansas town's vote opens fight over law cast as anti-gay

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EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — A northwest Arkansas town's vote to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity could pave the way for a legal fight over a new state law criticized as anti-gay.

Residents in Eureka Springs, a town known both for its 66-foot-tall Jesus statue and for being a gay-friendly tourist destination, voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to uphold the anti-discrimination ordinance. It's the most direct challenge to a state law aimed at preventing local protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Supporters said the results reinforced the image of the town as an inclusive community.

"The city has proven that it really believes in the golden rule, in treating one another how you'd like to be treated," Mayor Robert "Butch" Berry said Wednesday.

The ordinance was approved by the City Council in February, a direct response to Arkansas lawmakers prohibiting cities and counties from barring discrimination on a basis not contained in state law — a measure that takes effect in late July.

Already, Little Rock and Hot Springs have approved more scaled-back discrimination ordinances that only apply to city employees and vendors, and Pulaski County officials are taking up a similar proposal later this month. The law allows local governments to enact anti-discrimination measures applying to their own employees, but the measures go a step further with the vendor restriction.

"Right now, keeping up the momentum in other cities is imperative, so that every Arkansan can feel safe in their community," Kendra Johnson, state director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT rights group, said in a statement Tuesday night.

Berry said he believed his city's ordinance would open the door to challenging the law, but said he didn't believe Eureka Springs could enforce its measure after late July. Little Rock's attorney has argued local governments are still free to adopt such protections, noting that sexual orientation and gender identity are included in other state laws.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has declined to say whether she believes the law will prevent the anti-discrimination ordinances from being enforced.

"I believe this whole issue is going to land in court and I believe at the end of the day, the Eureka Springs ordinance will be unenforceable," said Jerry Cox, head of the conservative Arkansas Family Council, which supported the state prohibition.

The vote wasn't the first time gay rights has taken center stage in Eureka Springs, which hosts "diversity weekends" throughout the year to celebrate the LGBT community. Back in 2007, the city began issuing certificates recognizing couples' domestic partnerships, and in 2011, it became the first in the state to provide health insurance to employees' domestic partners.

The city also was the first last year to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a judge struck down Arkansas' gay marriage ban — a ruling that was later suspended and is on appeal.

Opponents of the ordinance have claimed the move was unnecessary and could hurt tourism in the city, which draws tens of thousands of people to see the "Christ of the Ozarks" statue and an outdoor play depicting Jesus' final days.

"Nobody wants to go vacation in a battlefield," said Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, who co-sponsored the state law.


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