UPDATE: The Washington County Clerk's office reports that voters approved the anti-discrimination ordinance 52.8 percent to 47.2 percent. 14,593 ballots were cast out of 49,634 registered voters.
The 29 percent voter turnout for the special election was nearly identical (but with support flipped) to a December election that repealed a previous, more expansive version of the ordinance.
For the second time since last December voters in Fayetteville are deciding whether to ban discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
A special election is scheduled for Tuesday. The measure is at odds with the opinion of Arkansas’s Republican attorney general on a new state law intended to ban such local ordinances.
Several city attorneys disagree and if approved Fayetteville would become the fifth municipality to add protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation since the state law passed. Little Rock, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, and Pulaski County approved more limited measures this summer.
Jerry Cox, the president of the Arkansas Family Council, opposes the ordinance. He doesn’t believe discrimination against LGBT people exists in Arkansas.
“Up to this point, they’ve been debating this for about a year now, no one has been able to bring any credible evidence that anyone’s being discriminated against. We’ve maintained from the very beginning that the law is absolutely unnecessary,” said Cox.
Groups in favor of the ordinance including churches, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, and a slate of LGBT groups say it is needed to combat a very real problem. The board president of the NWA Center for Equality Chaz Allen provided this statement.
“We know the real fear of thinking that you will lose your job, be denied a home, or refused service in a restaurant or store simply because of who you are. It’s just plain wrong for some neighbors to have their rights fully protected while others live in fear of unfair discrimination.”
The nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign last year released survey results of how LGBT Arkansans experienced work, healthcare, and educational institutions. Among the findings were 25 percent reported employment discrimination, 42 percent don’t consider their healthcare provider “LGBT friendly,” and 45 percent allege harassment at school.
A 2013 FBI report on hate crimes nationwide shows 21 percent of incidents were motivated by opposition to a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Opponents such as Protect Fayetteville and Family Council also point to religious objections to what is sometimes referred to as the “homosexual agenda.” Cox said anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people would infringe on what he sees as society’s value system. He said his religious belief informs his opposition.
“It absolutely does because our Judeo-Christian heritage has always been an integral part of who we are as a people; it’s an integral part of our law, our society, and our culture as a whole. Yes, it does play a factor as far as I’m concerned,” said Cox.
Voters previously repealed a more expansive ordinance passed by Fayetteville’s city council. This time supporters have the backing of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce. Opponents have also lost the voices of the Duggar family, after son Josh was part of two national scandals involving molesting minors and adultery. Cox dismissed the impact of both changes.
“I don’t think it makes any difference in how people are going to vote on this. There have been a number of high profile people on both sides of the issue,” said Cox. “I think at the end of the day people are going to sort through it based on the merits.”