Arkansas bars broader local rights for gays and lesbians; Wal-mart says it sends wrong message

Arkansas on Monday banned local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity, a move criticized by retail giant Wal-Mart and gay rights groups who said the prohibition damaged the state's image.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed legislation to go into law without his signature that bars cities and counties from expanding anti-discrimination ordinances beyond what the state already prohibits, making Arkansas the second state to approve such a prohibition. Arkansas' anti-discrimination protections don't include sexual orientation or gender identity. Monday marked the end of the five-day window for Hutchinson to take action on the bill or allow it to become law.

Hutchinson had raised concerns about the bill infringing on local control, but said he wouldn't veto it. His office said his position hadn't changed and he allowed the proposal to become law, despite a last-ditch campaign by advocacy groups urging him to veto the legislation. The law won't take effect until 90 days after the Legislature formally adjourns, which is currently set for May.

Bentonville-based Wal-Mart, which had been the focus of an intense social media campaign by opponents of the measure, criticized the prohibition late Monday afternoon. The world's largest retailer includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.

"Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve. It all starts with the core basic belief of respect for the individual. And that means understanding and respecting differences and being inclusive of all people," Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement. "We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief and sends the wrong message about Arkansas."

Opponents of the ban were weighing a lawsuit to challenge the measure's constitutionality.

"It's just another scar on the face of a state that really doesn't need any more signs of an intolerance toward outsiders, toward people that some people disapprove of," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

The measure was introduced in reaction to an ordinance in the city of Fayetteville, where voters expanded the city's anti-discrimination protections. Eureka Springs in northwest Arkansas enacted a similar measure earlier this month, and Little Rock elected officials are weighing expanding that city's discrimination protections.

The Republican lawmaker behind the proposal said it was aimed at leveling the playing field so businesses aren't faced with different laws throughout the state.

"To think we could have different civil rights laws in every city is not realistic and not conducive to a good business environment," said Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

But opponents of the measure said it's motivated by animus toward gays and lesbians, calling local government ordinances easy targets for conservatives.

"I think for folks who really want to turn back the tide on LGBT equality, these bills are unfortunately something they're looking into," said Cathryn Oakley, legislative counsel for state and municipal advocacy for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group.

The conservative Family Research Council called the law a model for other states.

"We would support the passage of similar bills in other states," said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies with the group.

Tennessee, the only other state with such a measure, enacted its restriction in 2011, effectively voiding a Nashville ordinance barring companies that discriminate against gays and lesbians from doing business with the city. A state appeals court dismissed a lawsuit against the restriction last year.

Texas lawmakers are considering several similar proposals after Houston, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio passed anti-bias protections for gays and lesbians.

Hutchinson, who was in Washington and unavailable for comment, said earlier this month that he understood the need to prevent "burdensome regulations on businesses across the state" but was worried about the impact on local control. Opponents of the bill had set up a website and waged a social media campaign urging Hutchinson to veto bill.

Hutchinson hasn't said what he'll do about another proposal pending before the Legislature that opponents have derided as sanctioning discrimination. A Senate panel is expected this week to take up the House-backed bill, which bars the state or local governments from placing a "substantial burden" on a person's right to exercise their religion.


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