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.
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.