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Fayetteville council votes 6-2 to approve controversial gender identity and sexual orientation ordinance

People – including many Southern Baptists – crowd inside Fayetteville City Hall during discussion and vote on the controversial ordinance protecting gender identity and sexual orientation Tuesday, Aug. 19. Photo by Lisa FalknorLisa Falknor
Arkansas Baptist News

JordanFAYETTEVILLE – By a vote of 6-2, Fayetteville became the first Arkansas city to approve a controversial ordinance protecting gender identity and sexual orientation Tuesday, Aug. 19.

As a part of the decision, the council will create a new position to enforce the rules of the ordinance. The position, called the civil rights administrator, will investigate discriminatory claims, serve as mediator between parties and recommend prosecution, if necessary.

Fayetteville Fireman Chief Kyle Curry said 350 people – the maximum number allowed in the building – crowded city hall for the council meeting. Additionally, dozens more people formed lines circling the block around the building. Proponents of the ordinance wore red, while those opposed wore purple.

An ordinance protecting the rights of homosexuals, transgender persons and other minorities is long overdue, some said during an extended period of debate; while others countered that the legislation forces churches and religious organizations to change their beliefs about homosexuality and violate individual conscience.

Following 10 hours of debate, Ordinance 119 passed 6-2 at 3:20 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said following the vote, “I see a day when we don’t put tags and labels on people.”

“Are we prepared to watch the mother of a 5-year-old child be prosecuted for trying to protect the values that she holds for her child? Are we ready to watch a pastor in his church be prosecuted just because he believes differently than others?” Rex Griffin, pastor of First Baptist in Elkins asked at an earlier council meeting. “These reports we’re discussing tonight are not issues of lawlessness but of morality and we should tread very lightly.”

Larry Page, executive director of the Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council, wrote following the decision that he feels the “real purpose” of the ordinance “is advance the homosexual agenda.”

“In its initial form, the ordinance would have required churches to allow their facilities (other than sanctuaries) to be used to host same-sex weddings and other ceremonies and events that violated their closely held religious values and faith principles (if the church in question allowed use of its facilities by any outside group, such as scouts or garden clubs),” said Page.  “Also, officials at private schools could not prohibit a male student from using the girls’ restroom or dressing room, if that male said he feels like he’s really a female.  The ordinance presented many more dilemmas for nonprofits and businesses.”

Page added, “The proposed ordinance was amended prior to its passage; supporters of the ordinance claimed that the amendments addressed all the objections from faith groups and cured all the cited shortcomings. Well, that seems a bit of a stretch. Even if the ordinance was improved by the amendments to the extent its supporters claim, it still represents a very flawed law.”

Andy Wilson, executive leader of ministry and operations at Cross Church in Fayetteville, told the council, “This is against our First Amendment rights.”

“This particular ordinance is actually one that did not originate here in Fayetteville,” said Ron Lomax, director of missions for the Washington Madison Baptist Association, who urged pastors to oppose the legislation. “It’s from a (Human Rights Campaign) committee that promotes the gay and lesbian agenda.”

Lomax said the national group spent millions of dollars targeting three southern states – Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas – targeting Fayetteville as their first entry-point.

“It’s pushing things on us that affect our belief system and our faith,” said Lomax. “It’s saying we can’t believe the way we want to believe and we have to fall in line with everybody else. That’s just not possible.”

According to the ordinance, to comply, churches cannot refuse to hire qualified homosexuals and transgender persons who apply for employment  (exempting “non-secular” ones such as the pastor/music minister); landlords will be forced to rent to same-sex partners and all organized entities which serve the public must accommodate transgender persons allowing them access to bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers (See ordinance 119 online). The ordinance exempts public schools, but not private schools.

Page said he continues to examine the new ordinance carefully, but already finds it problematic.

“The ordinance, in its enforcement, will inevitably pit groups against each other and force officials to take sides. That will undoubtedly result in some losing their legitimate liberties as the ‘nanny’ city government pursues its heavy-handed ways in favoring the classes it has chosen for special treatment,” he said, adding, “Perhaps most problematic, the ordinance establishes a precedent.  Other cities, no matter how well intentioned, may be prompted to implement like ordinances.”

Supporters said opponents of the bill promoted intolerance and fear.

“This (concern) about safety in the restrooms for the children is silly,” said Fayetteville resident Lisa Whitaker. “The ordinance wouldn’t change anything. Parents should watch their children in the bathrooms and protect them. That’s what good parents do.”

“I am ashamed that there’s so much darkness in the hearts of this community,” said Alderman Sarah Marsh, referring to the self-professed Christians and pastors who spoke against the discussion of the ordinance held Aug. 5.  “I had no idea that there were so many people eager to discriminate or to protect their right to discriminate. We need to speak out for tolerance, for compassion.”

In an interview, Lomax addressed the ordinance and Marsh’s criticism.

“People around the world have been persecuted for their faith much more than we have here in America,” he said. “Now it has come to our doorstep, too.”

The ordinance goes into effect Sept. 20 unless voters sign a counter-petition requesting a citywide vote.

Written by Lisa Falknor, northwest region correspondent for the Arkansas Baptist News (ABN), along with additional reporting by ABN staff.

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