Arkansas Legislature Pulls Out All the Stops to Block LGBT Equality — and Other Civil Rights, Too

The Arkansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that will block cities and counties from enacting their own policies to protect LGBT people from discrimination — or, for that matter, creating any civil rights ordinances outside those put in place by the state.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson

SB202 bars cities and counties in the state of Arkansas from ensuring civil rights protections for any group not already specified in the state law. Currently, the Arkansas Civil Rights Act of 1993 protects against discrimination based on the following characteristics:

The right of an otherwise qualified person to be free from discrimination because of race, religion, national origin, gender, or the presence of any sensory, mental, or physical disability is recognized as and declared to be a civil right.

Under the new law, Arkansas cities or counties couldn’t expand this law to include any other characteristics, like age or veteran status — all in the name of uniformity. Now, areas of Arkansas that want to push back against their state’s stifling social conservatism have no way to do so.

“This bill creates uniformity for business, and citizens for that matter, so that our employment laws will be the same throughout the state,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, the bill’s House sponsor, said before today’s vote on the House floor. “There are some things on a statewide basis we deal with all the time, such as murder and fraud — a variety of things that need to be uniform,” he said.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll neither sign nor veto the bill, which will allow it to become law. His reasoning for that isn’t great, either:

Explaining conflicts about the bill, Gov. Hutchinson released a statement saying that he would neither veto nor sign the bill — thereby allowing it to take effect. “I recognize the desire to prevent burdensome regulations on businesses across the state. However, I am concerned about the loss of local control. For that reason, I am allowing the bill to become law without my signature.”

Even though this bill technically doesn’t target LGBT people in its writing, the Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson has broken down why it’s still a blatantly homophobic, transphobic measure:

The trouble for Arkansas is that there’s now a huge legislative record that shows that, drafting notwithstanding, this bill is about LGBT people. All the statements, pro and con, show that. Opponents of the bill speak in terms of LGBT equality, and in terms of the need to keep Arkansas competitive when it comes to attracting corporations. Supporters try to talk about maintaining “uniformity” in nondiscrimination provisions, but the only examples of non-uniformity are provisions protecting LGBTs.

Courts often look at this kind of evidence. One example, recently cited in an unrelated Arkansas religious freedom case, was the Florida town of Hialeah’s “animal protection” ordinance, which was neutral on its face, but just so happened to ban Santeria-like religious practices, and just so happened to be accompanied by a lot of legislative history about keeping Voodoo out of Hialeah.

Even in Romer itself, the Supreme Court noted various anti-gay statements on the part of Amendment 2’s backers, which comprised some of the evidence that Amendment 2 was motivated by anti-gay animus.

Nor would the case for “uniformity” really fly either. Arkansas, like all states, has all kinds of laws that vary from place to place. Zoning ordinances, terms governing municipal contracts, you name it. In fact, that’s usually what conservatives support: more local control, less meddling from state or federal governments.

On the same day they approved this measure, the Arkansas House passed a “religious freedom” bill that will prevent state action from “burdening a person’s religious belief.” So, another attempt at allowing business owners to legally refuse service to LGBT customers is on its way to the State Senate:

After emphasizing that LGBT stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender,” [Rep. Mary] Bentley said from the lectern, “A baker who loves the word of God … should not have his or her business destroyed if someone who is transgender is trying to marry somebody else.”

“I am a Christian in the United States of America,” she continued. “It’s time to stand up and say enough is enough. They can do what they want to do, but we don’t have to destroy a business. I think it’s time that business owners have rights as well.”

Of course, religious freedom bills are a whole different story. But it’s clear that ever since Fayetteville’s LGBT rights ordinance (and the catastrophe of its subsequent repeal), Arkansas legislators are threatened by the mere thought of LGBT people having equal rights. This is an attempt at creating statewide uniformity, all right — uniform discrimination. Call it what it is, Governor.

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