A new state law takes effect Wednesday that prohibits Arkansas cities and counties from enacting anti-discrimination measures that are not covered in state law. But a challenge is expected as Eureka Springs city leaders say they will continue enforcing a local ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The law was sponsored during this year's legislative session by state Sen. Bart Hester, a Republican of Cave Springs, who said uniformity was needed in such laws across the state. He said Tuesday that he doubts Eureka Springs will actually challenge the new law.
"I think the first time the city tries to enforce it on someone, the city opens themselves up to a huge lawsuit on an individual or business, and they know that. I think they will probably keep the ordinance on their books as some sort of ceremonial-type deal, but there is no chance that they're going to enforce it," Hester told KUAR News.
While the state's civil rights law doesn't include sexual orientation and gender identity, James DeVito, a Eureka Springs city councilman who had introduced the measure, says city attorneys there, as well as for Little Rock and Fayetteville, believe this type of local measure is legal since protections for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people are included in other state laws.
"The legislature may have erred somewhat in their legislation, not being aware (of) things that were already written into Arkansas law," DeVito said. "There had been a recent Municipal League conference just a few weeks ago where a lot of the attorneys were just talking about it and felt like there are so many grey areas that it's probably going to end up in a court of law before we're able to determine conclusively what Arkansas law says."
Several Arkansas cities and counties passed or considered anti-discrimination measures designed to protect the rights of LGBT people, though most only impact city employees or contractors. Eureka Springs' went further by extending protection in employment, housing and public accommodations. In May, 71 percent of the city's voters rejected an attempt to repeal the ordinance.
Hester says if such protections are determined to be needed, they should be decided statewide.
"This law doesn't say we can't have increased civil rights protections in Arkansas, we just have to do it on an entire, statewide basis for uniformity and if the state or someone wants to increase civil rights protections, I encourage them to do what they think is right and we'll let democracy play its role and see what people want," Hester said.