The House today completed legislative action on Sen. Bart Hester’s bill to protect the ability to legally discriminate against gay people. It passed 58-21, with seven voting present, but didn’t muster the necessary votes for adoption of the emergency clause.
The bill prohibits local governments from extending civil rights protection to classes not protected in state law. It was a response to the Fayetteville civil rights ordinance that extended protection to LGBT people, who have no protection under state civil rights law. The ordinance was repealed in a referendum. The bill is meant to prevent any other city or county from protecting gay people.
Sponsors — Rep. Bob Ballinger in the House — presented the bill as a necessary means to avoid differences in the law from city to city.
Opponents included Rep. David Whitaker of Fayetteville who said cities should be allowed to run their own affairs. He said the system had worked in Fayetteville.
Rep. Clarke Tucker of Little Rock, in his first appearance in the well of the House as a freshman legislator, urged a vote against the bill for several reasons: He said the bill violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and he read from a Supreme Court decision that struck down a Colorado law aimed at preventing laws extending equal rights to gay people. He said the state would pay to defend the bill and pay attorney fees for lawyers who brought suit to strike it down. It is bad for business, he said. Most Fortune 500 businesses have explicit policies that provide protection for LGBT employees. It sends a message that Arkansas doesn’t equally value such workers, that it is “out of step with corporate culture.” It takes away local control. Finally, he said, “It’s fundamentally the wrong thing to do.” He said the bill amounted to a “pro-active act of discrimination.” He said his grandfathers had taken unpopular stands as school board members in support of school desegregation in Little Rock and Fort Smith. “They did what they did because they thought it was right. In hindsight, we know they were on the right side of history. I know it’s unpopular in 2015, but I believe it’s the right thing to do.”
Rep. Warwick Sabin followed with a plea for protection for people who don’t know enjoy it under the law.
Rep. Kim Hammer supported the bill, saying the Tennessee Supreme Court had upheld a similar law in that state.
Rep. Mary Bentley said she wanted to get the truth out and not hide behind the LGBT acronym, she emphasized that the initials stood for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. She said a pastor shouldn’t have to perform a marriage that went against his religious belief. (The Fayetteville ordinance wouldn’t have done that.) She said a baker shouldn’t have to fear having her business “destroyed” for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender person.
The lack of an emergency clause gives the city of Little Rock time to do something, at long overdue last. Mayor Stodola? The bill, if signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson (as it presumably will be), won’t take effect until 90 days after the end of the session. In theory this provides time for a voter referendum. Needing a two-thirds vote, only 54 voted for the emergency clause. UPDATE: He hasn’t said yet whether he’ll sign it or simply allow it to become law, but Hutchinson has said he won’t veto the bill.
UPDATE II: He will allow the bill to become law without his signature.
Here’s the roll call. No Republicans joined the no votes, but enough voted present or didn’t vote to narrow the margin substantially.
PS — Matt Campbell, the lawyer who writes Blue Hog Report, says Hammer (and Ballinger who made a similar statement) are wrong on legal precedent. There was a Tennessee Court of Appeals ruling in favor of a similar statute there, Campbell said, but only because the plaintiffs lacked standing, not on the merits of the argument.