Eureka Springs chamber expresses concerns over anti-discrimination law
EUREKA SPRINGS -- After lengthy discussion with its executive committee and a meeting Monday morning with Aderman James DeVito, members of the Gay Business Guild, city leaders and Fayetteville attorney Travis Story, the Greater Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce issued a position statement citing concerns about the city's new anti-discrimination ordinance.
The Eureka Springs City Council passed Ordinance 2223 unanimously after three readings on Feb. 9, and Mayor Butch Berry signed the ordinance into law the next morning.
Among other things, the law prohibits businesses from discriminating against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As a result of Monday morning's meeting, the city council could move to amend the ordinance during Monday night's 6 p.m. meeting, according to Story, the Fayetteville attorney who led the successful effort to repeal a similar law adopted there last year.
The Eureka Springs council adopted the ordinance in an effort to pre-empt an Arkansas State Senate bill, SB 202, that would it illegal for cities to enact anti-discrimination laws. The bill has passed both houses of the state Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Asa Hutchinson's signature.
"The Greater Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, staff and management, in representation of over 440 members does not support discriminatory actions on behalf of or towards any individual," Chamber President Mike Bishop said in the statement. "Eureka Springs is one of Arkansas' top tourist destinations and has built its reputation and ultimately its financial base on hospitality, welcoming everyone."
The statement went on to say that the chamber is concerned that the city council did not exercise due process when it passed the ordinance, and that such a law could make businesses vulnerable to lawsuits and make it difficult to do business in the city.
Chamber leaders say they have received feedback over the years that it is already "difficult to do business in Eureka Springs," and they wonder if the ordinance will only strengthen that perception.
Toni Rose, the chamber's operations director, said that in addition to local business concerns, the chamber has questions about a section of the ordinance that "binds all contractors doing business with the city."
In the statement, Bishop said the chamber is responsible for looking after its member businesses' best interest and concerns.
"The 'emergency' passing of Ordinance 2223 by the Eureka Springs City Council has caused great concern, having heard from several business leaders and members," Bishop said in the statement.
"The concerns thus far are focused on due process ... no one was aware of this proposed ordinance prior to the Feb. 9, 2015, council meeting and was not given a chance to weigh in on it before being passed through an emergency action; financial hardships the city could endure in defending its actions should litigation occur; the unknown restrictions and regulations that might be placed on business owners including but not limited to: enforcement and fines, penalties and punishment that might be placed on a business owner or employee of said business, and basic rights of business owners and citizens alike," the statement said. "In a nutshell, there are too many unanswered questions and potential 'what ifs' that need clarification for people to feel comfortable with this ordinance."
The Eureka Springs Gay Business Guild released its statement on the ordinance late Sunday night. Guild President Lamont Richie, who helped draft Ordinance 2223, said that when the guild's board met the Thursday before the council adopted the ordinance, they discussed SB 202 "at length and concluded that it was an overreach by the legislature and a not-so-subtle attempt to give permission to discriminate against the LGBT community."
"We have known that it was lawful to deny services, to fire or to limit housing opportunities to LGBTs," Richie said in the statement. "SB 202 makes that official state policy. It was at that meeting that we would promote ourselves as Partners in Diversity, believing that it better explained our purpose and was more inclusive."
Richie went on to say in the statement that SB 202 is "wrong and shortsighted for Eureka Springs" and "sends a hateful message to everyone who believes in equality."
Richie, a business owner and 23-year resident of Eureka Springs who also serves as a Carroll County justice of the peace, in the statement addressed the city's emergency clause and said that SB 202 and Eureka's ordinance "involves more than the interests of the LGBT community." "The City's NDO was in direct response to the speed at which SB 202 was flying through the Legislature, in particular the emergency clause that was attached," he said. "It passes the Senate with the emergency clause, but it was not until days after the council's action that the House failed to pass it with a large enough majority to carry the emergency clause. "By allowing .. .and with SB 202 by encouraging ... discrimination against someone because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, we are giving people free rein to deny services ... to fire ... and to limit housing opportunities only because they don't agree with another's lifestyle," Richie said. "I guess Eureka Springs' welcome signs will have to be enlarged soon to make room for all of the asterisks we'll need to show the exceptions to that welcome."
Richie said that as events unfold with the drive to repeal the ordinance, he expects a bipartisan group to take the lead in arguing for retaining the ordinance.
"After all, this does not affect just the LGBT residents and visitors; it affects everyone," Richie said.
Story has launched a petition drive with the help of Arkansas Family Council president Jerry Cox and Duncan Campbell, Fayetteville's Repeal 119 president, seeking a public referendum on the Eureka Springs ordinance. The group had an open meeting last week at First Christian church to launch the petition drive and Story said that so far, "results from the drive have been encouraging."
The group has launched a website, www.repeal223.com.
"We want everyone to be a part of it to give them a chance to sign and we have until March 12 to submit the petition," Story said.
Story said that Fayetteville's chamber has similar concerns as Eureka's chamber and opposed that city's ordinance. He said the unintended consequences of Eureka Springs' ordinance are "that it drives current businesses out of the market because they don't want to be forced to provide services which violate their deeply held religious beliefs.
"It hurts the overall economy because there are less people to provide services in general, regardless of their personal preferences or the beliefs of any one particular group," Story said.
Story said he also takes issue with fines a business could incur for violating the ordinance.
"Never before has [a city] created criminal penalties for not doing something," he said. "This would create criminal penalties and potential jail time if a person refuses to pay because they object to doing what is demanded by someone who has rights under this ordinance."
Story also said the ordinance "puts the church under the authority of the city.
"The church is now being forced by compulsion to all use of the church's non-sanctuary facilities when demanded by any one of the new protected classes defined in the ordinance."