As of Tuesday, it is now law that cities in Arkansas cannot pass ordinances protecting LGBT people from discrimination. That’s because a new bill became law — without Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signing or vetoing — that limits municipalities from extending nondiscrimination protections to any class not protected by state law. Since state law does not include “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” as protected classes, nor now can any locality throughout the state. The law will officially take effect later this summer.
In addition to blocking further extensions, SB 202 likely invalidates preexisting protections in cities like Little Rock and Eureka Springs, Eureka Springs having just passed its ordinance earlier this month to preempt the bill. Tennessee passed a similar law in 2011 and though cities have since still advanced LGBT protections, their validity under state law has not been tested.
SB 202 seems to have passed specifically thanks to silence from the state’s business community. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce told ThinkProgress last week, “We have no position on that piece of legislation.” Walmart, which is based in Arkansas and has corporate LGBT protections, only spoke out on the bill Monday evening, mere hours before it was to become law without Hutchinson’s signature. Tyson Foods, another prominent Arkansas business that protects its gay employees, remained silent on the legislation.
It was businesses who helped defeat a similar “license to discriminate” bill in Arizona last year that was couched in “religious freedom” language. Conversely, statewide LGBT protections are actually advancing in Wyoming right now with support from groups like the Wyoming Mining Association, Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the Wyoming Lodging and Restaurant Association, and the Wyoming State AFL-CIO, all of whom argue that protecting LGBT workers will help them recruit talented employees.
Efforts like SB 202 reflect how state-level conservatives are working in numerous ways to pre-empt how municipalities govern themselves. Texas, for example, is attempting to curtail local power on issues like fracking, plastic bags, and payday lenders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Texas Republican lawmaker has already proposed an identical bill (SB 343) to the one just passed by Arkansas. The effect in Texas would be much more devastating; 7.5 million people currently live in a Texas city with LGBT protections, including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston (pending), Plano, and San Antonio. All of those ordinances would likely be invalidated if SB 343 became law.
Bills that limit local LGBT protections mirror those proposed in numerous other states that attempt to use “religious freedom” to circumvent ordinances that shield LGBT people from unlawful discrimination. Whereas the religious freedom bills are designed to allow individuals to ignore such ordinances, the Arkansas-style bills more blatantly restrict the ordinances from even existing. Though the passage of SB 202 likely makes it effectively redundant, Arkansas is still also considering one of these religious liberty bills as well, the so-called “Conscience Protection Act.”