The Little Rock City Board dispensed with debate tonight and went straight to a vote on its ordinance to extend civil rights protection to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The ordinance passed 7-2, with Directors Erma Hendrix and B.J. Wyrick voting no. Director Kenneth Richardson was absent, but he’s said repeatedly he supported the ordinance. Mayor Mark Stodola did not vote, but also made clear his support.
Fifteen people signed up to speak for the ordinance and only one to vote against. Interestingly, the usual suspects at the Family Council, a group devoted to preserving legal discrimination against gay people decided to absent themselves from the discussion.
The ordinance puts city policy on nondiscrimination in its own employment into the city code. That does not conflict with a new state law aimed at preventing city and county ordinances that advance legal protections for gay people. The ordinance also requires nondiscrimination by companies that want to do business with the city. An opinion by City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the city ordinance doesn’t conflict with state law because state law in several ways does allow protection against discrimination against sexual minorities. He also noted that the Supreme Court decision that struck down the criminal sodomy statute effectively bans state discrimination on ground of sexual orientation.
Supporters of legal discrimination have been suspicious and critical of the city ordinance, though it doesn’t go as far as an ordinance in Eureka Springs, which goes before that city’s voters May 12.
As a practical matter, city civil rights enforcement is all but unheard of. For example, I can’t recall a case of the city acting against a business on grounds that they discriminated against blacks or women.
But the symbolism is important Supporters of this ordinance DO believe it provides enough of an opening to mount an attack on the state law when circumstances are right. It is a point they didn’t want to emphasize before tonight.
Neither Hendrix nor Wyrick explained their votes. Wyrick works in the Hutchinson administration, however, and is married to a Republican politician. The Hutchinson administration would not stand in the way of the anti-gay law limiting local ordinances, signed a religious freedom bill that includes no non-discrimination language and has refused to support an executive order or law change to prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation.
UPDATE FROM DAVID KOON:
Full house of Little Rock progressive movers and shakers tonight at the City Board meeting, with some disappointment that the crowd didn’t get to hear what would have surely been impassioned speeches from those signed up to speak, including Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen and Rabbi Eugene Levy.
After the vote, ACLU staff attorney Holly Dickson said that the measure, while not as broad as the LGBT protection ordinance in Eureka Springs, is a positive step toward a better Little Rock.
“It’s a great day for Little Rock,” Dickson said. “We’re sending the right message to the people who live here, to the people in our state and to people around the world: that we welcome everyone and we want to treat everyone fairly and equally.” Dickson said the way the measure is written, it would be hard to foresee it being brought to the ballot as seen with the repeal of 119 in Fayetteville.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” she said. “It’s hard to see how somebody could really take issue, but there again, anything is possible.”
Barbara Mariani of the Stonewall Democrats was all smiles as well, concurring with Dickson that the Little Rock measure isn’t as open to a ballot challenge as the Fayetteville Ordinance.
“I think the wording of this ordinance is very different, and so the legal issues are different and the arguments are different. It’s a little bit harder to argue against this one. The Fayetteville ordinance was very hard to understand. This one is very clean, and I think it’ll help a lot of people understand it better. So hopefully you won’t get as many objections.”
Mariani took a moment to particularly thank City Director Joan Adcock for her yes vote on tonight’s measure, calling it a pleasant surprise that must have been a hard vote for Adcock. Mariani said that while she wasn’t shocked by the nay from Erma Hendrix, she was surprised about the no vote by B.J. Wyrick, who Mariani said must have been under “incredible pressure” from her constituents.
Mariani said that tonight’s win doesn’t belong to any one person or group, but many people and groups that have fought for LGBT equality in Little Rock for years. The fight for minority equality has happened over and over in Arkansas, she said, but Little Rock’s vote tonight was a step in the right direction..
“This is not the first time Arkansas has had this fight with a minority,” Mariani said. “Others have come before us and fought very hard. So I’m not shocked it came to this. I am very happy that we’re going forward though.”
William H. Bowen Dean Emeritus John DiPippa was also on hand. He said that while Little Rock protections don’t go as far as those seen in the Fayetteville or Eureka ordinances, good legislation is about doing what’s possible.
“That’s the first rule of legislation: Accomplish what you can,” he said. “This may not be so broad as Eureka’s, but on the other hand, you saw the vote: seven to two without discussion. So they accomplished what good legislators do, which is to accomplish the possible.
With challenges to Act 137 sure to come, DiPippa noted an interesting wrinkle with the Little Rock ordinance that may give those who support Act 137 a toehold to defend it.
“Here’s the problem with 137,” DiPippa said. “If you believe that it was passed for the purpose of discriminating, then it’s unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution. If, however, you adopt [Little Rock City Attorney Tom] Carpenter’s reading, which is to say that anything that’s already mentioned in state law is covered and allowed in city ordinances, then 137 is Constitutional, because it doesn’t single out any particular group. So, ironically, what Carpenter has done is: He’s given a way for Act 137 to be constitutional.”
DiPippa said that the passage of LGBT protections tonight sends a message to the city, the state and the nation.
“I think the message is, Little Rock is open for business, and it values and appreciate everyone who lives here and all its citizens,” DiPippa said. “That message is timeless, and crucial, and needs to be said, especially in this climate, where the contrary message is: we’re going to erect barriers and distinguish between groups of people.”