LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Five local measures prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity cannot be enforced because of a new Arkansas law barring such protections, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge wrote in a nonbinding opinion Tuesday.
Rutledge said the state law prohibits ordinances in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs, Pulaski County and Fayetteville from expanding anti-discrimination protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The measures were adopted in response to the Legislature’s passage of the law prohibiting cities and counties from banning discrimination on a basis not covered by state law.
“Because current state law does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, it is my opinion that Act 137 renders the five ordinances unenforceable in this respect,” Rutledge, a Republican, wrote in the advisory opinion.
Arkansas’ civil rights law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity, but supporters have pointed to other state laws that include such protections.
The measures in Little Rock, Pulaski County and Hot Springs bar discrimination by their agencies and any businesses that contract with them. Eureka Springs’ ordinance is broader and affects businesses regardless of whether they contract with the city, while Fayetteville’s ordinance is going before voters in a special election next week.
Officials with the local governments said Rutledge’s opinion didn’t change their mind and they planned to continue enforcing the ordinances.
“It’s just a continuation of a decision to be able to discriminate against a certain group of people for political reasons, and that’s not what the law is about,” Little Rock City Attorney Tom Carpenter said.
Eureka Springs Mayor Robert “Butch” Berry said his city will continue enforcing its prohibition but noted it has only fielded one complaint against a business, which was dismissed.
“If there are any complaints, we would enforce it. We’re not going out looking for complaints,” Berry said.
Rutledge dismissed the argument that the ordinances are legal due to sexual orientation and gender identity protections elsewhere in state law. She wrote that one of the laws cited as having broader protections — an anti-bullying statute — doesn’t apply since it only covers public school students.
Arkansas was the second state after Tennessee to enact such a restriction on local governments when the law was approved by the Legislature earlier this year. Supporters argued it provided uniformity in local civil rights laws, while opponents cast it as anti-gay and said it infringed on local control.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the measure to become law in February without his signature, citing the local control concerns. The prohibition took effect in July.
Rep. Bob Ballinger, who sponsored the new state law, said he believed the governments should repeal their ordinances or at least stop enforcing them in light of Rutledge’s opinion.
“I feel like that was probably a fairly easy position for her to take because I think the law was pretty clear,” the Republican from Hindsville said.
Rutledge’s opinion comes a day after opponents of Fayetteville’s ordinance asked a state judge to block next week’s special election on the measure. The lawsuit, in part, argues the ordinance violates the new prohibition on local LGBT protections.