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Arkansas court rules city can’t enforce LGBT protections

Arkansas' highest court on Thursday said a city could not enforce its ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The court said it had already ruled the measure violated a state law aimed at preventing local protections for LGBT people.

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The state Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Washington County judge's decision to allow Fayetteville to continue enforcing its anti-discrimination ordinance while the city challenged the constitutionality of a 2015 law preventing cities and counties from enacting protections not covered by state law.

Arkansas' civil rights law does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

The court in 2017 ruled the ordinance violated the state law. Citing that decision, justices on Thursday reversed Judge Doug Martin's ruling and dismissed the case. In Thursday's ruling and the previous decision, the court did not rule on whether the state law was constitutional.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have nondiscrimination laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity covering employment, housing, public accommodations, credit and insurance, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas' flagship campus and a gay pride parade that organizers tout as the largest in the state, is considered a liberal enclave in a conservative region of Arkansas. It's one of several cities that approved local protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in response to the 2015 state law. The court in 2017 rejected the city's argument that it was allowed because LGBT protections were included in other parts of state law.

"Today's unanimous decisions reaffirm the state's authority to ensure uniformity of anti-discrimination laws statewide and to prevent businesses from facing a patchwork of nondiscrimination ordinances," Atty. Gen. Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who had argued against the ordinance, said in a statement. "These decisions show that the city of Fayetteville is not above or immune from State law."

Fayetteville City Atty. Kit Williams said he would likely ask the court to reconsider its decision and said the city's argument that the law was unconstitutional remained undecided.

"The city has never had an attempt to defend a citizen-passed ordinance by showing that the state law was an unequal protection of the laws," Williams said. "It seems very strange that they would deny us the right to at least present that constitutional argument to them for their decision."

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