Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock's time

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It is time for Little Rock to demonstrate it is the leading city in Arkansas.

The Arkansas legislature last week completed action on a bill to prohibit local governments from passing ordinances that expand civil rights protection to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), sponsor of the legislation, was provoked by Fayetteville's adoption of such an ordinance. He even threatened to cut state support for the University of Arkansas after its chancellor, David Gearhart, made a mild statement on the side of equal rights.

The bill was slowed a bit in the House, thanks to a push from the Arkansas Municipal League, which raised structural objections. The bill prohibits any sort of preferential treatment for a class not already protected in state law. Could Little Rock still give bidding preference to local companies when this law takes effect? Could it give special rates to the elderly or families? What is a family, anyway?

Mayor Mark Stodola made a tepid statement about Hester's bill when it first appeared. He stuck to the local-control defense. But when the debate reached the House, a couple of Little Rock legislators, Clarke Tucker and Warwick Sabin, focused instead on the simple unfairness of a state law protecting discrimination against gay people.

Tucker had a family experience to draw on: grandfathers who'd served on Arkansas school boards in the days of desegregation. He said it might be politically unpopular today to support equal rights for gay people — just as equal rights for black people were once politically unpopular — but he didn't intend to be on the wrong side of history.

City Director Kathy Webb is working on an ordinance to bring the Constitution's promise of equality to Little Rock.

Those who want legal protection for discrimination against gay people will say that the new state law prohibits enforcement of such an ordinance. Don't be so sure.

The state law won't take effect until late summer, because the anti-gay crowd couldn't muster enough votes to pass the emergency clause. Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he won't veto it, though he indicates at least a touch of discomfort by also refusing to sign it.

It is legal today for cities to ban discrimination against gay people. Little Rock should do so and dare Hester and other hate groups to try to stop it. They will have a hard time proving a rational state interest in promoting discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court spoke on that in a Colorado case 19 years ago. They will have a hard time, too, proving the compelling public interest in allowing a merchant to refuse to provide a hotel room, meal or other public accommodation because he disapproves of the perceived "sin" of homosexuality.

Remember when federal law made even people brandishing ax handles serve fried chicken to black people? The resisters then also had deeply held beliefs that the Bible prohibited mixed dining, bathing or marriage. It should be no less clear today that no religious freedom has been breached by applying a similar rational protection to gay people in common commercial services.

The mythical Christian cake baker — forced to provide a wedding cake for a transgender couple — has been much invoked in the debate. I don't recall similar worries about the godly butter-cream icing purveyor being forced to feed adulterers, gluttons, horse thieves and other sinners.

When they say it isn't about sex, it's about sex.

Arkansas may venerate Robert E. Lee above Martin Luther King. It may hold an unmatched animus toward a twice-elected black president. It may hold religion supreme over science in biology classrooms. It may be a state whose majority believes in discrimination against gay people.

Little Rock is better than that. It should prove it by black-and-white deed. Pass an ordinance that says — from the airport to Chenal Valley and the tech park in between — discrimination isn't tolerated. It's good for business.

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