FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (BP) — Southern Baptists in an Arkansas city are working to overturn a homosexual-transgender ordinance in what apparently is the opening salvo in a new campaign to enact such legislation in the South.
Voters in Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, will have the opportunity Dec. 9 to vote on whether to rescind a measure that provides civil rights protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people. Fayetteville’s city council approved the ordinance in August, and opponents of the law gathered more than 5,700 signatures within a month to place the measure on the ballot for a special election.
Religious freedom is a major concern for opponents of the ordinance, said a Southern Baptist leader in Fayetteville.
“This ordinance puts those with religious objections to homosexuality within the prosecution powers of the ordinance as they exercise their faith,” Ron Lomax, director of missions for the Washington Madison Baptist Association, said. “A pastor would have to prove to the [government] that his act of ‘discrimination’ was based on a ‘bona fide’ religious or denominational preference and that his act was ‘a necessary result of such a bona fide condition.'”
The city council’s 6-2 vote made Fayetteville, located in the northwest part of the state, the first Arkansas city to adopt LGBT civil rights legislation. Three southern states — Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee — have no cities with such ordinances, according to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest political organization that promotes LGBT rights. About 200 cities and counties in the United States have non-discrimination laws that include transgender rights.
Passage of the Fayetteville ordinance appeared to mark the first win in a new southern campaign that HRC launched in April. HRC’s Project One America is an effort with an $8.5 million budget over three years to expand equality for the LGBT community in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. “It’s long past time that the country stopped treating the South like the ‘finish line’ for equality,” Chad Griffin, HRC’s president and a native Arkansan, said in a written statement.
The Fayetteville ordinance includes real or perceived “gender identity, gender expression” and “sexual orientation” among a list of reasons for which discrimination is prohibited in employment and housing. It also bars discrimination by establishments that provide “goods, services, accommodations and entertainment to the public,” which would include hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
In addition, the measure creates a new post, civil rights administrator (CRA). The CRA would investigate complaints brought under the ordinance, mediate disputes and recommend prosecution, according to the Arkansas Baptist News.
Southern Baptist pastors joined others in opposing the ordinance in city council meetings and are among those supporting the repeal effort.
If a pastor is prosecuted, Lomax, the Fayetteville DOM, told Baptist Press in an email interview, the CRA and the judge “will determine whether his religious belief is bona fide and whether the action he took due to that religious belief was ‘necessary.’ For us, this runs against the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion.”
Under the ordinance, churches and other religious organizations would no longer be free in their hiring practices for non-ministerial positions, Lomax and others said.
Before a vote on final passage, the city council approved an amendment that barred requiring a religious institution to make its “tax exempt property or place of worship” available for a meeting or ceremony. The amendment, however, excluded activities supported by government funds.
The amendment is insufficient, not only for churches but certainly for Christians and other religious adherents, Lomax said.
“Businesses and people of faith still face the threat of criminal prosecution under this ordinance,” he told BP. “Even with those last minute amendments, the ordinance is still bad. You can’t amend something that is so flawed and make it acceptable.”
Among other concerns Lomax and others have regarding the ordinance are:
— It would force those with Christian convictions to violate their consciences by providing goods and services to support same-sex weddings.
— The safety of women and children may be at risk because the ordinance allows males who identify as transgender but may be sexual predators to use women’s restrooms and dressing rooms.
— No exemptions are included for private schools and daycare centers, though they exist for public schools.
No one “should dictate terms, policy, procedure, ceremonies, traditions, doctrine or preferences to religious institutions — and certainly not coerce and criminalize people of faith if they don’t agree with someone else’s opinion or lifestyle or reserve the right to not participate in an offensive ceremony,” Lomax told BP.
While he is hopeful Fayetteville’s voters will overturn the ordinance in December, he said, “If nothing else, this ordinance has woken up a sleeping giant, the church of God, and has brought Christians together in our city like nothing else has done.”
The battle over the Fayetteville ordinance comes amid controversy surrounding actions by Houston’s government regarding a similar measure approved by its city council. After opponents challenged that law in court, lawyers for Houston issued broad subpoenas to four pastors and a ministry leader for their sermons, speeches and other communications regarding homosexuality, gender identity, the ordinance, a referendum effort and the mayor, who is a lesbian advocate of the law. The city removed the word “sermons” from the subpoenas Oct. 17, but religious liberty advocates said the action was inadequate.
Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, objected to the subpoenas in an Oct. 22 letter to Houston Mayor Annise Parker and asked her to order their withdrawal. “These discovery requests threaten to have a chilling effect on religious and political speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” Kirsanow wrote.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Cross Church in the Fayetteville area, will be among the speakers Nov. 2 at the “I Stand Sunday” simulcast hosted by the Family Research Council and other organizations to support Houston’s pastors and churches and to defend religious liberty.