Townsell says new LGBT protections are 'statement' against Arkansas law

Originally published: Feb. 25, 2015 in the Log Cabin Democrat | Link to article

Conway now joins other Arkansas cities in affording “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” protections to its city employees.

The Conway City Council, in a 6-2 vote on Tuesday, passed an amendment to the city’s employee handbook outlining additional anti-discrimination measures for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Ordinance: Equal Opportunity Employment

As a result of the ordinance, protections are expanded for the 531 full- and part-time employees who work for the city.

Supporters at the Russell L “Jack” Roberts District Court Building clapped and cheered the decision that was made after about two hours of public input. Council members discussed their own views before the vote.

In effect immediately as a result of an emergency clause, the ordinance generated about two hours of public feedback from both supporters and opponents, who filled many of the seats at the district court building in downtown Conway.

The emergency clause passed with the same margin in another vote from the city council.

Several in the audience, including two council members, expressed their desire for the topic to be tabled for a later date, allowing for more public input and more time for evaluation.

Those voting in favor were council members Andy Hawkins, representing Ward 1 Position 1; David Grimes, Ward 1 Position 2; Wesley Pruitt, Ward 2 Position 1; Shelley Mehl, Ward 2 Position 2; Theodore Jones Jr., Ward 4 Position 1; and Shelia Whitmore, Ward 4 Position 2.

Aldermen Mark Ledbetter, Ward 3 Position 1, and Mary Smith, Ward 3 Position 2, voted against the ordinance, citing lack of adequate time to consider the policy and concerns about the need for changes to equal opportunity employment protections.

Council members received the meeting agenda last Friday and word spread throughout the weekend on social media and in news reports.

Aldermen who voted in support said the matter was an affirmation of “human rights” for all city employees.

Conway’s city employee handbook and personnel policy now reads in part, “The City of Conway is committed to providing equal employment opportunities without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status or status as a covered veteran in accordance with applicable federal, state, and local laws governing non-discrimination in employment.”

During the meeting, Conway Mayor Tab Townsell said he and the city would not back down from affording extra protections for the LGBT community.

He said the move was not coincidental and was strictly based on the timing of the passage of Senate Bill 202, which states, “A county, municipality or other political subdivision of the state shall not adopt or enforce an ordinance, resolution, rule, or policy that creates a protected classification or prohibits discrimination on a basis not contained in the state law.”

Townsell added that the move is a “statement” from the city in response to the Arkansas law that went into effect earlier this week.

“What we wanted to do is make sure in a timely fashion, because this is the action and passion of the moment,” he said. “We want to send a message that, yes, they can do that – they trump us in one sense.”

In another sense, the mayor said that Conway wanted to trump the state’s action to show those on the outside looking in that the city is welcoming of diversity.

He added after the meeting that he was “proud” of the outcome and affirmed statements made in the audience that the decision was intended as a political statement.

“It in essence codifies what we already do as a city in practice, but simply puts it in written black-and-white language,” he said.

Townsell said the ordinance is not in violation of the recently-passed Arkansas law that limits the passage of anti-discrimination ordinances outside the state definitions.

“That has a specific exemption for political subdivisions like our counties and municipalities to govern their employees the way they wish,” he said. “We are doing exactly, in this ordinance change, what’s allowed by the state government in its newest law.”

About 35 Conway residents, as well as a few from out of town, spoke in favor and against the ordinance during the public forum.

Those opposed said the ordinance was not necessary or that it posed the possibility of being a “slippery slope” into protections outside of city employees, while supporters said the timing was right to make pass what they saw as a “human right.”

The opponents included local politicians such as state Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Bigelow), who said the ordinance could create a threat to certain religious freedoms.

Rapert was one of the attendees who asked for the council to table the topic to further review the legality of the ordinance, as well as possible unintended consequences such as lawsuits.

He added his concerns about “biological males who claim to be female, in some cities and instances, to appear nude before females and vice versa in bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.”

“You actually open up the city of Conway to a lawsuit from that individual that you meant to protect if you then bar that person from being able to use the bathroom that he says he should be legally allowed to utilize,” Rapert said.

He added that the ordinance could be exploited by a “peeping Tom” with “issues,” or by those who are disgruntled city employees.

Townsell discredited the comments, saying that the problem existed before the ordinance and would continue to exist regardless of the council’s decision.

City attorney Chuck Clawson said he does not see a “slippery slope” based on what he said is a “very, very specific exemption” in the new Arkansas law that restricts the anti-discrimination efforts of the city.

“We couldn’t take any broader [actions],” he said.

Tyler Pearson, Rapert’s opponent for District 35 in the November 2014 election, said he was in support of the ordinance.

John Schenck, founder of the annual Conway Pride Parade with his partner, Robert Loyd, said he was proud of Conway for making what he said is the right decision.

“This will be an economic boon,” he said, adding that Wal-Mart Stores is supportive of recent anti-discrimination efforts in Arkansas that support the LGBT community.

The world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, also condemned Arkansas’ anti-discrimination law and a “conscience protection” bill going through the state legislature that the company said sends the wrong message.

Conway resident Xander Phifer, a member of the transgender community who identifies as male, spoke twice during public input, also in support of the measure.

Mark Elsinger, former candidate for Conway mayor, spoke out against the ordinance, asking why the protections were needed at this point.

Elsinger added that he hoped the council would consider the people who elected council members, rather than what he saw as a personal agenda.

Cheryl Maples, a Searcy attorney who co-represented plaintiffs in a Pulaski County lawsuit that challenged the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, spoke in favor of the ordinance as a representative of local clients.

Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage was later overturned for a brief period in 2014. The Arkansas Supreme Court stayed the judge’s ruling to overturn the ban, which remains in effect.

Others who spoke in favor and against Conway’s ordinance included additional openly gay residents, pastors, higher education instructors, a private school administrator and political figures.

Paul Hudson, pastor at oneChurch in Conway, was one of those spoke out against the ordinance.

“As a Christ follower, God has called me to love all people, and I do,” he said. “As a husband and a father, this concerns me.”

Hudson said the ordinance was an issue of “conviction or morality.”

With a different Christian perspective, another Conway resident praised of the decision.

Richard Henley, president and CEO of Conway Christian School, expressed his opposition and said there could be a “slippery slope,” simply based on previous discussions surrounding the timeline of alcohol sales in Conway.

Little Rock and North Little Rock have similar “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” language in their city employee policies.