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Arkansas Lawmaker Wants To Block All Local Civil Rights Ordinances

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP

Arguing that businesses will benefit from legal uniformity across the state, Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs) introduced a bill that would prevent the enactment of civil rights ordinances that vary from state law. But opponents of the bill worry it will be used to hurt LGBT people by prohibiting municipal non-discrimination laws that actually compensate for a lack of state protections.

Hester’s bill may have been inspired by a civil rights ordinance that was repealed in December. Early last year, the Civil Rights Administration ordinance passed Chapter 119 in Fayetteville, which banned discrimination surrounding sexual orientation and gender identity. But a recall election at the end of the year reversed the policy. To date, Arkansas does not ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, housing, or public accommodations.

Kit Williams, Fayetteville’s city attorney, argues that SB 202 aims to reduce the likelihood that a similar law would be passed in the future. “I predicted, to the city council, that the legislature would attempt to preempt the area of civil rights so that Fayetteville, nor any other city, could pass an ordinance to protect the rights of gay and lesbian citizens from being discriminated against,” he said in an interview with KXNW.

According to the Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act, or Senate Bill 202, “a county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.” The bill is premised on an assumption that local civil rights ordinances are detrimental to business, and that uniformity of the law makes commerce most efficient. Hester also contends that uniformity lends itself to economic growth by appealing to potential employers and businesses.

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Contrary to Hester’s argument, research about the impact of employment discrimination against LGBT people shows that civil protections actually benefit local economies. On the one hand, discriminatory policies can hinder the recruitment of qualified job candidates. They also slow production by instilling fear in employees and creating a stressful work environment. Indeed, one study projected a loss of $1.4 billion due to a lack of LGBT worker productivity. Moreover, the LGBT population’s buying power totals $1 trillion, and ostracizing its business prevents businesses from maximizing revenue.

Nevertheless, three states have explored similar restrictions in the past. In response to a new law in Plano, Texas that prohibits LGBT discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and the workplace, several Republican lawmakers are eyeing legislation that would make such protections illegal. Two years ago, Nebraska bill LB 912 sought to ban municipalities from granting LGBT protections as well. Tennessee successfully passed a law of the same nature in 2011.