On Tuesday, residents of Fayetteville, Arkansas narrowly voted to overturn its civil rights ordinance that protected all residents from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. The county election commission reports that 51 percent of residents voted to repeal Ordinance 119, which would have banned such discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic background, marital status or veteran status. Thousands of residents voted against the repeal, but came up about 500 votes short.
Anne-Garland Berry, the campaign manager of the Keep Fayetteville Fair Coalition, released a statement lamenting the result of the vote. “Fayetteville is a city filled with inclusive, accepting citizens,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, the repeal of this ordinance tells our visitors that we do not treat everyone with respect and only allocate freedoms to certain groups of people.”
In Fayetteville, as in most states and cities across the US, it is still legal to fire someone solely based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. With federal protections stalled in Congress and the Arkansas legislature’s Republican super-majority expanding after this past election, the town’s LGBT residents testified before the city council that they desperately needed a local ordinance.
“People like me don’t feel safe here,” resident Nathan Southerland Cordsmeyer told the Council in August. “I’m living with a shadow over my head.”
But business owners and religious leaders in the community gathered thousands of signatures this fall in order to trigger this week’s special election, in which just 29 percent of registered voters participated.
Though the area’s largest employers — Walmart and the University of Arkansas — already have similar protections on their books, the local Chamber of Commerce also came out against the civil rights ordinance, arguing incorrectly that the at-risk groups already had legal protections, and worrying that the move would make employers unjustly face “criminal prosecution” should they fire an incompetent employee.
The most visible supporters of the repeal, however, were the reality TV celebrities Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who donated thousands of dollars, gave speeches blasting the civil rights protections, and recorded robocalls like this one claiming the law would “open a door” to sexual predators.
Fayetteville resident Anne Shelley, who works at the Northwest Arkansas Rape Crisis Center and helped organized against the repeal, told ThinkProgress she was “greatly saddened” by such arguments.
“To say we should repeal this fair-minded ordinance because someone might be sexually assaulted would be like saying we could no longer have churches, because I know people who have been assaulted in churches by people they know and trust, or that we shouldn’t have families anymore, because it happens within families as well,” said Shelley, who is herself a survivor of childhood sexual assault. “It just doesn’t logically make sense.”