FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (BP) — Southern Baptist leaders in northwest Arkansas are expressing hope voters will overturn a pro-homosexual/transgender ordinance Dec. 9, turning back a significant threat to religious liberty.
Residents of Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, will go to the polls to vote on rescinding a measure that includes civil rights protections for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) people. Fayetteville’s City Council passed the ordinance in a 6-2 vote in August, but its foes collected enough signatures within a month to place its repeal on the ballot in a special election.
A Fayetteville pastor and the local Baptist director of missions conveyed to Baptist Press a measure of optimism as the vote nears. The local Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, has added its voice for repeal.
Douglas Falknor, pastor of First Baptist Church, said he is “cautiously optimistic” the ordinance will be repealed.
Ron Lomax, director of missions for the Washington Madison Baptist Association, said he is “very hopeful” regarding repeal, “if people from our church congregations and businesses will get out and vote.” Lomax cited churches and businesses because the ordinance infringes on religious freedom and institutes a “more difficult business environment,” he said in an email interview.
The Fayetteville ordinance includes real or perceived “gender identity, gender expression” and “sexual orientation” among a list of classifications deserving protection from discrimination 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 the new post of civil rights administrator for the investigation of complaints, the mediation of disputes and recommendations of prosecution, according to the Arkansas Baptist News.
The ordinance’s weakness on religious liberty is especially objectionable to Southern Baptists.
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), described the ordinance as “one of the most broadly written and troubling non-discrimination bills I’ve ever seen, stipulating religious exemptions only for the most narrow of circumstances, which will endanger untold numbers of men and women seeking to live out their Gospel faith.”
He added in a written statement for BP, “Religious freedom doesn’t arrive by majority vote and can’t be negotiated away by majority vote.”
Despite amendments by the city council, religious and conscience rights remain vulnerable under the ordinance, its opponents contend. Among the concerns:
— Churches could be prosecuted if they refuse to hire gay or transgender people for “secular” staff posts.
— Christian schools and bookstores could be required to violate their beliefs in their employment practices.
— Business owners with religious objections could be prosecuted for declining to provide their services for same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies.
A spokeswoman for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a leading advocate for religious liberty, said the ordinance fails to fulfill American government’s responsibility to safeguard, not threaten, the freedoms of speech and conscience.
“Passing laws that guarantee special protections for some but punish others is a reckless avoidance of this duty,” said Kellie Fiedorek, ADF litigation staff counsel, in an email interview with BP. “If this ordinance is enacted, people of all backgrounds and beliefs would be forced to accept, endorse and even promote government-dictated messages, ideas and events, even if they violate their deepest convictions.
“Fayetteville is already a diverse and tolerant place: the government should not use its power to coerce any Arkansan, under threat of punishment, to surrender his or her constitutionally protected freedoms,” Fiedorek said. “Coercion is not an American value.”
Passage of the Fayetteville ordinance appears to mark the first win in a new southern campaign to extend LGBT rights. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest political organization that promotes LGBT rights, announced in April such an effort with an $8.5 million budget over three years in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. On Nov. 10, HRC unveiled its “All God’s Children” religious outreach to persuade Mississippians that homosexuality is compatible with Christianity.
If the ordinance survives the repeal effort, Fayetteville will be the first Arkansas city with an LGBT civil rights law. Three other southern states — Tennessee, as well as Alabama and Mississippi — have no cities with such ordinances, according to HRC. About 200 cities and counties in the United States have non-discrimination laws that include transgender rights.
Moore said of the Fayetteville ordinance, “Some organizations are using this law as a wedge issue to expand similar laws around the country, and I hope the people of Fayetteville will vote to repeal this ordinance.”
ADF, Fiedorek said, hopes “elected officials not only in Fayetteville but across America will stand up for freedom.”
The Chamber of Commerce in Fayetteville, according to a Nov. 10 memo by its president, Steve Clark, said the city had failed to address the organization’s numerous questions about enforcement of the ordinance, including some regarding religious freedom.
The chamber’s opposition to the law is based on its advocacy for its members and “absolutely not a pro-LGBT vs. anti-LGBT debate,” Clark said. The chamber includes LGBT members and “abhors discrimination of any kind,” but the ordinance is “unworkable and unacceptable,” he said.
The legal questions chamber representatives asked of the city “leave existing and new businesses without guidance regarding how they should train their employees to comply with the law and/or modify any of their policies to comply,” Clark said.
The chamber board’s position has encouraged the repeal effort, Falknor and Lomax said. Its support has been “very helpful for offering a different face/perspective for repeal” and for providing a media campaign, Falknor said.
The ordinance’s opponents also have expressed concern about the safety of women and children because males who identify as transgender but may be sexual predators could be free to use female restrooms and dressing rooms.
Pastors from as far away as Houston and San Antonio joined local pastors Dec. 2 in Fayetteville for a briefing and news conference to back the repeal effort. Both of those Texas cities have enacted ordinances similar to the one approved in Fayetteville in the last 15 months.