Arkansans to Protect Local Rights said on Thursday it was stopping its petition drive to repeal Act 137 via referendum. The group had hoped to put the measure on the ballot before voters in 2016, thus preventing it from going into effect on July 22, but faced a steep climb to collect enough signatures before that date.
Act 137 is the 2015 law authored by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) that is intended to forbid Arkansas cities from passing local non-discrimination ordinances.
Note: intended to forbid. Some say the plain language of Act 137 actually won’t prevent cities from covering LGBT citizens as a protected class, contrary to the obvious intent of its author. David Couch, an organizer of the campaign, noted the legal opinion issued by Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter in April, prior to the LR City Board passing its own non-discrimination measure:
Couch said the group agreed with the argument from Little Rock’s city attorney and others that the new Arkansas law doesn’t actually prohibit local protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. They’ve pointed to other state laws that include protections for LGBT people.
“I think we could have done it if we kept pushing, but it got to, why are we trying to repeal something that doesn’t really prohibit what we want to do?” Couch said.
Fayetteville’s City Attorney also relied on Carpenter’s analysis in justifying a second try at a non-discrimination measure there.
That being said, there were probably a couple other good reasons for the group to drop the referendum push. First, it’s difficult and expensive to gather the tens of thousands of signatures required to get a measure on the ballot in the window provided by law, and it just became more difficult this year. Couch told the AP that the group had collected about 10,000 signatures thus far.
And second, there’s the question of whether Act 137 is something that supporters of LGBT rights really want before the voters of Arkansas. Just yesterday, a poll by Talk Business and Hendrix College found Arkansas voters overwhelmingly support allowing businesses that provide wedding-related services to discriminate against same-sex couples. That would seem to not bode well for a referendum on a related issue.
But then again, RFRA and Act 137 are not the same thing. Act 137 isn’t just a slap at LGBT rights; it’s also a rollback of local control. The TB/Hendrix poll didn’t ask voters what they thought of a state law that prevents cities from taking a vote on a local ordinance. I’m pretty certain HB 1228 (the Arkansas RFRA) would win at the ballot box, but I’m not as sure about Act 137.