By Robbie Ward
TUPELO, Mississippi (Reuters) - A rural northeast Mississippi community discriminated against a lesbian woman by denying her a license to reopen a bar catering to gays and lesbians, a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday claims.
The lawsuit was filed by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center and said the town of Shannon discriminated against Pat "PJ" Newton and violated her civil rights to free speech and equal protection.
It accused the town, the mayor and the aldermen of denying the license because Newton's bar would cater to gays and lesbians, and not because she failed to meet any criteria for opening and operating a business in Shannon.
During the town meeting in June when Shannon aldermen denied the license request, about 40 residents attended to oppose the bar, and delivered a petition with more than 100 signatures from people who objected.
Shannon attorney Gary Carnathan said he had not yet seen the lawsuit and could not comment. However, he said there was no mention of sexual orientation at the June meeting.
"There wasn't ever any mention about gay or straight or anything when it was brought up," Carnathan said. "It was only brought up after it was initially declined."
Town officials say they voted against having any other bar in the community of about 1,700 residents. The town has a liquor store and two existing bars.
Newton, 55, operated the bar, called O'Haras, in the community from 1994 to 1998. Now living in Memphis, Newton said she decided to reopen it after numerous gays and lesbians in northeast Mississippi said they wanted a place where they could feel comfortable and unwind without feeling threatened.
Shannon is about 11 miles from Tupelo, home of the conservative American Family Association.
Tension felt by gays in the region was highlighted in the 2006 documentary, "Small Town Gay Bar," which featured the Shannon bar. It later operated under a different name after Newton sold it, and it closed a few years ago.
Newton said she didn't know there was any opposition until she appeared at the town meeting to ask for the license.
"If I'd been a straight redneck from Shannon, nobody would have cared," Newton said recently.
She said she had already signed a lease on the property and had begun making improvements, and pays rent and utility bills even though she is unable to open.
The lawsuit asks the court to award damages for lost revenue and expenses, issue an injunction allowing the bar to open and award legal fees.
David Dinielli, the Southern Poverty Law Center's deputy legal director, said Newton met all requirements to open the business.
"The facts and circumstances make it clear that something else was at play here," he said.
The California law firm Hogan Lovells is also working on the case, which is: Pat "PJ" Newton and O'Hara's v. Town of Shannon, Mississippi, et al, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi, 1:13-cv-00187-JMV
(Editing by Jane Sutton; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)