Representatives of Protect Fayetteville, a group advocating against passage of the city’s Uniform Civil Rights Protection ordinance, announced a lawsuit (PDF) was filed today challenging the validity of the new law which is set to be decided during a Sept. 8 special election.
The suit, which seeks an injunction to halt the special election, was filed by Travis Story, the lawyer who helped fight a similar civil rights measure that was narrowly repealed in December, according to a statement (PDF) released by Protect Fayetteville.
A hearing has been set for 9 a.m. Friday, Sep. 4 at the Washington County Courthouse.
The lawsuit will not affect early voting, which will take place from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 1-4 in the Washington County Clerk’s office at 280 N. College Ave.
The move should come as no surprise to backers of the new law.
City Attorney Kit Williams said earlier this year he expects the ordinance to be challenged by a lawsuit because of a recently passed state law, called the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act (Act 37), which bans cities and counties from enacting or enforcing “an ordinance, resolution, rule or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.”
Williams said despite the new legislation, he doesn’t believe the new ordinance conflicts with state law. He referenced an argument used by Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter when Little Rock was considering a civil rights ordinance in April. Carpenter cited portions of Title 6, Chapter 18 of Arkansas Code, which prohibit bullying in public schools on the basis of several classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Because those protected classes already exist, Carpenter opined, a municipality would not be in violation of Act 37 by adopting nondiscrimination policies based on those classes.
Williams said Carpenter’s arguments would also apply to the new law in Fayetteville.
“It won’t be a slam dunk…but I’m fully prepared to defend this,” said Williams.
Supporters of the ordinance dismissed the 11th-hour lawsuit, calling it “a cowardly stunt” aimed at silencing voters.
“For months people across Fayetteville have been uniting behind the basic belief that everyone deserves a life free from fear and discrimination,” states a release issued by the NWA Center for Equality, a local nonprofit working towards LGBT equality. “It is hurtful that a small minority continues to believe discrimination is acceptable and should be legal.”
About the ordinance
The new ordinance was approved by aldermen on June 16. As part of that approval, the ordinance will not go into effect unless voters approve the measure in a special election to be held Sept. 8.
If passed, the new law will prohibit business owners and landlords from firing or evicting someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It will also provide protections for use of public accommodations, including restrooms.
Churches, religious schools and daycare facilities, and religious organizations of any kind would be exempt from the new law.
Unlike the previous repealed ordinance, the city attorney would not serve as the administrator of complaints. Instead, a Civil Rights Commission would be formed to review and decide complaints of alleged discrimination.
The commission would consist of seven members: two representatives of the business community; two owners or managers of rental property; one representative with experience in human resources or employment law; and two citizens at large, at least one of whom identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.
Anyone asserting a claim of discrimination would be required to present their claim in writing to the city attorney, who would inform the Civil Rights Commission that a complaint had been received.
Informal and confidential mediation would be attempted by the city before any other enforcement measures could begin. If mediation fails, the commission would schedule a hearing to review the complaint and receive evidence. If the commission determines that discrimination had occurred, the violator would be fined up to $100 for the first offense. Subsequent violations would carry the city’s general penalty which calls for fines of up to $500. A violation would not be considered a misdemeanor or felony.
Early voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 1-4 in the Washington County Clerk’s office at 280 N. College Ave. There will be no early voting on Monday, Sept. 7 due to the Labor Day holiday. Both paper ballots and touch-screen machines will be available for early voters.
Polls will open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on election day Tuesday, Sept. 8. There will be no paper ballots on election day. Unlike previous elections, Fayetteville voters may cast ballots at any of the approved polling sites, regardless of their voting precinct.
The Awakening – 5763 E. Mission Blvd.
Baldwin Church of Christ – 4399 Huntsville Road
Buckner Baptist Church – 748 Wyman Road
Central United Methodist Church – 6 W. Dickson St.
Christ’s Church – 525 W. 15th Street
Christian Life Cathedral – 1285 E. Millsap Road
Covenant Church of Christ – 4511 W. Wedington Dr.
First Assembly – 550 E. 15th St.
First United Presbyterian Church – 695 E. Calvin St.
Genesis Church – 205 W. 6th St.
Mt. Comfort Church of Christ – 3249 Mt. Comfort Road
Sang Avenue Baptist Church – 1425 N. Sang Ave.
Sequoyah Methodist Church – 1910 Old Wire Road
St. John’s Lutheran Church – 2730 E. Township Road
Trinity Fellowship – 1100 Rolling Hills Dr.
Trinity Methodist – 1021 W. Sycamore St.
Yvonne Richardson Center – 240 E. Rock St.
For more information about the special election, visit www.co.washington.ar.us.