Fayetteville Leaders Approve Controversial Civil Rights Issue

FAYETTEVILLE (KFSM) -After nearly nine hours of public discussion, the Fayetteville City Council early Wednesday morning approved the controversial civil rights ordinance that drew hundreds of audience members from across the area.

The ordinance passed 6-2 at 3:20 a.m., with aldermen Martin Schoppmeyer and Justin Tennant voting against the measure. The council meeting began at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, but extended several hours because of the dozens of audience members who spoke during the public input section of the meeting.

The ordinance takes effect in 31 days and will prohibit local businesses and entities from discriminating against customers and others based on gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors.

The ordinance will also create a new position—the civil rights administrator—who will enforce the rules of the ordinance using city powers. Council members said they do not yet know who would be appointed to the position.

(Click here to read the ordinance)

Those violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500 by the city. If they refuse to pay the fine, they may face jail time, said city attorney Kit Williams.

Several members of the council spoke out in favor of the ordinance before the final vote, with Mayor Lioneld Jordan delivering a speech about the responsibility of elected officials to stand up for the people.

“I believe everyone should have the same rights as everyone else,” Jordan said.

The mayor went on to say he had confidence in city officials’ abilities to figure out how to apply the ordinance in the coming weeks and months.

Schoppmeyer did not speak on the issue, but Tennant said while he agreed with the thought behind the ordinance, he was concerned about the uncertainty of how the new position would work.

He also criticized giving so much power to one administrator who has not even been named yet by the city. Tennant instead suggested creating a civil rights panel made up of five members, one from each city ward. That suggestion was never picked up by the other council members.

“I don’t see a plan. I see an idea for a plan,” Tennant said. “I hope it’s not as bad as I think.”

Before voting on the ordinance as a whole, the council decided earlier Tuesday night not to allow local residents to vote on the issue. The decision came after Tennant suggested earlier in the meeting that voters should have the final say on the issue at the Nov. 4 general elections.

Alderman Mark Kinion said he voted against allowing the public to vote on the issue because the protection of minorities should not be left up to the majority.

Fayetteville residents may still bring the issue to a public referendum if they turn in a petition with 4,000 certified signatures by next week.

Hundreds lined up outside of Fayetteville City Hall on Tuesday afternoon in anticipation of the meeting. Dozens of people had to be turned away from the City Council chambers because of concerns from the fire marshal over crowd safety.

The mayor opened the meeting by assuring the public anyone who wants to speak would be heard Tuesday night. Around 3 a.m., the final member of the public finished speaking at the podium. The line to speak stretched out the door for several hours.

Several transgendered men and women spoke up during public input, saying the ordinance would allow them to feel safer and not fear for their jobs and housing. Petty said current laws allow employers to fire employees because they are gay or transgendered, a situation he said the ordinance will remedy.

Several church members and concerned members of the public also spoke out against the issue, saying they worried about the negative effects the ordinance could have on local businesses and churches. Some said they were concerned the ordinance could invite frivolous lawsuits that would hurt the reputations of good businesses.

The ordinance will officially create a civil rights administrator, who would be able to use the city’s powers to ensure “all persons within the city have equal access to employment, housing and public accommodations,” the proposal states. The ordinance states it will ban business establishments from discriminating against people based on real or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, gender identity, gender expression, familial status, marital status, socioeconomic background, religion, sexual orientation, disability and veteran status.

The proposed ordinance also bans discrimination measures while employing a person or conducting a housing or real estate transaction.

Rogers lawyer Marshall Ney waited in line and spoke up during the public input section of the meeting, saying he had a problem with the ordinance’s language. Allowing socioeconomic status to become protected could hurt businesses trying to make sure clients could pay for their services, he said.

Ney gave an example of a bank running a credit check on a potential loan client. The city attorney responded such instances are not intended to be affected by the ordinance, and that courts would take into account the intention of the ordinance.

The Rogers attorney countered that the language could still put such businesses at risk.

The City Council changed several portions of the original proposal before the final vote, including striking from the ordinance a section that would have made it unlawful for businesses to post or print materials which might make certain people feel unwelcome or undesirable. The change came after the city attorney said in an earlier meeting the section could be seen as perpetuating prior restraint against First Amendment rights.

Several local pastors and church leaders spoke in a similar meeting earlier this month, after which the council exempted churches from having to conduct ceremonies or organized events that might hold values or ideas different from the churches.

In a self-described show “of good faith” for church leaders speaking out against the proposed ordinance, Petty added a clarifying amendment Tuesday night that will exempt places of worship and tax-exempt properties from opening their doors to ceremonies or activities contrary to their ideals, as long as they are not receiving public money.

Another amendment passed Tuesday night specifically prohibited anyone from using the ordinance to justify sneaking into the “wrong” restroom, a concern that was brought up by several public speakers Tuesday night and at the last council meeting. The city attorney said that would have been illegal anyway under state law.

The ordinance was originally proposed by Petty because he said there are instances of discrimination in Fayetteville that need to be addressed in an official capacity. Several speakers agreed with Petty on Tuesday night, saying discrimination should not be legally able to thrive in the City of Fayetteville.

Detractors of the proposed ordinance said it violates First Amendment rights by legislating behavior and infringing on local businesses’ freedoms.

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