City Council members listened for nearly three hours Tuesday night while residents voiced their opinions on a proposed anti-discrimination ordinance.
The proposal, brought forward by Alderman Matthew Petty, would appoint a city staff member to field complaints from residents who feel they’ve been discriminated against during housing transactions, employment decisions, and other public accommodations in Fayetteville.
If approved, landlords and business owners could be investigated and prosecuted for unjustly evicting or firing someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status.
State and federal law prohibits discrimination based on someone’s age, gender, disability, race or religion. But in Arkansas there are no non-discrimination laws that cover the other categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Jeremy Flanagan, pastor at Pathway Baptist Church in Fayetteville, was the first to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting on Tuesday.
Flanagan said the ordinance would challenge a church’s practice of expressing its religious views on homosexuality.
“I believe that goes against our First Amendment rights to be able to say our statements of belief and statements of faith,” Flanagan said.
After several residents and area pastors echoed Flanagan’s remarks, Alderman Petty proposed an amendment to exempt sanctuaries and chapels of religious institutions and associations from the ordinance.
Flanagan said even with religious groups being exempted, his concerns are spread further than that, and argued that protections based on gender identity could lead to women going topless at public swimming pools, men using women’s restrooms, or women entering men’s dressing rooms.
“I don’t want to explain that to my nine-year-old,” he said.
He also said if the ordinance is passed, it would be “opening a door” for pedophiles and sexual predators who wish to abuse people.
“That pedophile could be changing clothes next to your granddaughter in a department store,” said Flanagan.
Others who spoke against the proposal said discrimination is not an issue, and challenged Alderman Petty to cite specific instances of discrimination in Fayetteville.
“I would love to know where the real and widespread problem is,” said Duncan Campbell, a southwest Fayetteville resident. “I don’t know of any.”
Last week, the Human Rights Campaign released the findings of a survey of 979 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Arkansans in which 25 percent of all respondents said they have experienced employment discrimination.
“I want to be real clear that there are instances (of discrimination),” said Petty. “And this idea that I’m going to A) either disclose someone who’s lodged a complaint and expose them to public scrutiny or B) expose a business or another association that has had an alleged complaint to public scrutiny is a farce. I would not do that.”
Others who spoke against the ordinance included pastors and ministry leaders from Cross Church in Fayetteville, First Southern Baptist Church of Goshen, Calvary Chapel in Fayetteville and First Baptist Church of Elkins. Several state representatives also spoke against the proposal including Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville; Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville; and Randy Alexander, R-Springdale.
Small turnout for those in favor
Gladys Tiffany, president at OMNI Center for Peace, Justice & Ecology, was one of four residents to speak in favor of the proposal. Tiffany said discrimination is “very real, and it operates on every level of our society.”
She said having solid, anti-discrimination elements in the city’s ordinance system would help shine a light on discrimination and could encourage someone who has been treated unjustly to come forward.
“People could clearly see that their issues are something that their city is interested in addressing and they could say that, ‘Yes, we have a place in our city,’ because it’s right there in the ordinance,” said Tiffany.
After hearing from 22 residents in a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night, council members left the proposal on its second reading.
Before that decision, Alderwoman Sarah Marsh said she was “ashamed” by the large turnout of residents who spoke against the proposal.
“I had no idea that there were so many people eager to discriminate or to protect their right to discriminate,” she said.
Marsh’s comments prompted an outburst from several of those in opposition to the proposal. Mayor Lioneld Jordan struggled briefly to maintain order before many of the upset audience members stormed out of the City Council chambers.
A third reading and possible final vote is set for Aug. 19.
1998 Human Dignity Resolution
Petty’s proposal is similar to a 1998 measure that would have prohibited the city from discriminating against homosexuals when hiring or firing city employees.
The council voted 6-2 to approve the policy, known as the Human Dignity Resolution. Following the vote, then-Mayor Fred Hanna vetoed the proposal. Two weeks later, the council overturned Hanna’s veto.
A group called Citizens Aware mobilized to collect enough signatures to put the proposal on the Nov. 3, 1998 ballot where it failed, 58 percent to 42 percent.
Video – Human Dignity Resolution (council approval)
Video – Human Dignity Resolution (veto overturned)
Videos: YouTube / Don M. Burrows