Arkansas lawmakers seek to bar anti-discrimination expansion

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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 7:44 PM
Arkansas lawmakers seek to bar anti-discrimination expansion

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Cities and counties would be unable to prohibit firing or evicting someone based on their sexual orientation under legislation approved by the Arkansas Senate Monday, a move opponents blasted as a dangerous overreach into local affairs.

A bill approved by the state Senate on a 24-8 vote would bar local governments from enacting ordinances that prohibit discrimination on a basis not contained in state law. Arkansas law doesn't cover discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

If enacted, the measure would make Arkansas the second state to place such a restriction. The proposal now heads to the House.

The measure is being pushed in reaction to a Fayetteville ordinance that voters repealed in December expanding the city's anti-discrimination protections.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization, said the proposal is a thinly-veiled attempt to discriminate because of sexual orientation.

"This anti-LGBT bill is aimed at punishing the Fayetteville mayor and city council who sought to provide all of the city's residents with non-discrimination protections." HRC spokesman Hubert Tate said.

Republican Sen. Bart Hester, who proposed the legislation, said it is intended to standardize laws across the state, which he said is just as important as civil rights.

"What we need to do in the state of Arkansas is create a uniform and standardized process for any business to come in," Hester said.

The proposal was approved on a mostly party line vote, with three of the Senate's 11 Democrats voting for the bill. The state Democratic Party issued a statement opposing the measure, and the top Democrat in the chamber portrayed the restriction as hypocritical compared to Republicans' rhetoric.

"If Washington passed something like this and passed it down to the states, we would scream about federal overreach," said Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram.

The Arkansas Municipal League hasn't taken a position on the measure yet, though its attorney has expressed concerns about its impact. Hester said he's open to changing the measure to address their concerns. Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he opposes the measure.

"I believe that every city should have the right to pass ordinances that they think is best for their city, particularly anti-discrimination ordinances," Jordan said.

Hester's legislation wouldn't apply to rules or policies that only affect employees of a local government.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he's still reviewing Hester's proposal and said he understands the concerns about taking away local control of cities and counties.

"I think any conservative has some hesitation and preference over local control, but there are some issues that override that," Hutchinson told reporters. "Part of it is consistency for our business community so they have similar rules they have to operate in all across the state. The preference is always local control, but there are certain issues that override that and I think that's the debate on this legislation."

The HRC said Tennessee is the only other state with such a restriction. Tennessee lawmakers approved the measure in 2011, effectively voiding a Nashville ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city. A state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit against the restriction last year.

Texas lawmakers are considering several similar proposals after Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio passed anti-bias protections for gays and lesbians.

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Associated Press Writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas contributed to this report.

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