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Texarkana residents protest nondiscrimination law

City director says he doesn't want Texarkana to miss out on economic development.

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CITY DIRECTOR JOHNSON: Sponsor says ordinance will help Texarkana compete for new business.
  • CITY DIRECTOR JOHNSON: Sponsor says ordinance will help Texarkana compete for new business.

On Jan. 19, Texarkana joined the limited ranks of Arkansas cities that have passed ordinances providing some measure of equal protection for LGBT people. The modest measure, which was sponsored by City Director Tim Johnson, includes sexual orientation and gender identity among protected classes in city employment and personnel practices, and extends to those who contract with the city.

Now, Travis Story, the lawyer who sued to stop the enactment of Fayetteville's nondiscrimination ordinance, is taking his bathroom fright show to Texarkana as well. Last week, he met with residents who oppose the nondiscrimination ordinance, the Texarkana Gazette reported.

The law says Texarkana can't discriminate in its hiring and contracting on account of a person's "race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic information, political opinions or affiliation."

The Texarkana Gazette reported on a gathering last Tuesday of 35 people at a property owned by Texarkana residents Richard Wagnon and his wife, Sheila, to hear Story. The newspaper quoted Story's bathroom anxiety: " 'Any facility that is a public accommodation that does business with the city, it specifically means they are going to have to allow things like someone who claims the gender of a female, although is male in every other respect, they are going to have to allow them into their restrooms,' he said. 'We are going to have to allow them into [the ladies'] restroom.' " It is the same argument Story and others, including the Jim Bob Duggar family, made in Fayetteville. Fayetteville's board of directors passed one non-discrimination ordinance, which was overturned by a referendum. A second, revised ordinance was subsequently passed by the voters and enacted in November.

Wagnon, who with his wife owns nursing homes and develops real estate, is quoted in the newspaper article as saying the ordinance "will lead to potential discrimination towards me, as a Christian, and my religious beliefs." He warned the crowd that supporters of the ordinance "are going to tell you all kinds of lies. They are going to tell you things like 'you're a homophobic.' " Wagnon said.

Those who oppose the ordinance are trying to force a referendum on the issue, which will require gathering at least 1,109 signatures of registered voters in the city limits of Texarkana, Ark., according to Story.

City Director Tim Johnson said the "sole intent" of the measure was to put the city in a better position to compete for new industry and business. With the opening of Interstate 49 and recently gained water rights to Lake Millwood, Texarkana is hoping to break out of stagnation, Johnson said, and he doesn't want the city ruled out of any competition for business because it did not have an anti-discrimination policy.

Johnson said he looked at other nondiscrimination policies, including Miller County's, Domtar Paper Co.'s in Ashdown, and Christus St. Michael Health System's, before introducing the one the board passed unanimously. He noted that at AT&T, where he worked for 36 years until retirement, "they have a very inclusive policy. ... I am not sure where the root of this opposition comes from."

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