Arkansas bill gives businesses the right to refuse to serve LGBT customers
A lesbian couple (AFP Photo/Miguel Rojo)

When Arizona lawmakers wanted businesses to be able to choose whether to serve LGBT customers based on the religious convictions of their owners, there was a national outcry. Especially, it seemed, from the business community.

The National Football League threatened to move the Super Bowl. The Arizona Cardinals football team sent a letter condemning the law. Wells Fargo, Apple, Bank of America, Marriott and American Express all criticized the bill .

In Michigan, an analogous act met the same fate. Business leaders who had originally come together to add LGBT protections to the state’s civil rights law ended up fighting against a religious freedom bill introduced in response.

“By not having inclusive policies we’re contributing to brain-drain,” said Sommer Foster, director of political advocacy at Equality Michigan. “We were able to get a number of CEOs to sign on and say discrimination doesn’t represent Michigan values.”

But now in Arkansas, where a bill to stop municipalities from passing ordinances to protect the LGBT community is almost certain to become law, national business leaders are keeping mum.

“It’s been pretty quiet so far, unfortunately,” said Laura Phillips, board member and advocacy chair at the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality, a small nonprofit based in Fayetteville, about the reaction from the business community. “It’s frankly kind of distressing that there’s been that much silence.”

In Arkansas, a governor neither has to sign or veto legislation for it to become law – if the governor takes no action for five days, the bill is considered approved. This, governor Asa Hutchinson has said, is the path he will take.

LGBT leaders are attempting to organize against the governor’s inaction, gathering signatures and urging constituents to call and email the governor’s office, but they say the silence from business leaders is conspicuous.

“We are just really surprised,” said Lamont Richie, president of the Eureka Springs Gay Business Guild, about what is perceived among activists as a failure on Walmart’s part to speak up. The retail giant is the state’s largest employer and a vocal proponent of LGBT rights. The company has a strong internal anti-discrimination policy, and has sponsored events like the New York City Pride parade . “I don’t know what’s happening in back rooms – I wish I was privy to that.”

The Arkansas state chamber of commerce has also refused to comment.

While Arizona’s chamber of commerce and industry condemned that state legislature’s attempt to codify a religious freedom bill, the Arkansas state chamber of commerce CEO relayed a message to the Guardian through a secretary: the chamber has no opinion.

Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.

Arkansas is not unique in its failure to protect the LGBT community from housing and employment discrimination. (It is the latter that typically draws criticism from the business community, which says such laws hinder attempts to attract talent.)

In all, 29 states don’t protect members of the LGBT community through anti-discrimination statutes. The failure is one of omission. Unless states spell out protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, there are none.

In the face of states’ failure to act, more than 200 municipalities across the country have passed anti-discrimination ordinances. Most recently, a West Virginia town of just five residents agreed to enact such an ordinance.

And in Arkansas the same phenomenon was happening. The Fayetteville city council may have inadvertently inspired the bill with a non-discrimination ordinance it passed – local LGBT leaders say the state bill’s sponsor, Republican state senator Bart Hester , commented on the Fayetteville ordinance even though the center of his district is more than 120 miles away . (Voters repealed Fayetteville’s ordinance by referendum last December, but that didn’t deter Hester.)

The state senator fast-tracked the law, part of an effort to ensure that the LGBT community did not have “special rights that I do not have”, Hester told BuzzFeed News. The bill now sitting on Hutchinson’s desk was less than two weeks old when it was passed by both houses of the Arkansas general assembly.

“Any time a state legislature makes a special effort to squash the ability of a local community to say that it doesn’t want to discriminate against the LGBT community, I think that’s a pretty astounding political statement,” said Rebecca Isaacs, executive director of the Equality Foundation.

“Senate Bill 202 passed with significant margins in the General Assembly, and I have a high regard for the discussion in the legislature and respect for the legislative process,” Hutchinson told the Arkansas Times in a statement. “As Governor, I recognize the desire to prevent burdensome regulations on businesses across the state. However, I am concerned about the loss of local control. For that reason, I am allowing the bill to become law without my signature.”

The bill was altered only to remove an “emergency” provision that would have made it effective immediately upon approval. Now, if the bill becomes law, it will take effect 90 days after the legislative session ends. That’s likely to be sometime this summer because the Arkansas legislature often extends its session.

Eureka Springs claims to have the only active LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance in the state, though LGBT activists said they are attempting to inspire others to pass similar laws.

“I have yet to receive one contact from the chamber of commerce, or any business in the area, asking any questions about the ordinance,” said Richie, one of the Eureka Springs ordinance’s architects and strongest proponents. “It’s rather disturbing but at the same time.

“It’s not surprising – this is Arkansas.” © Guardian News and Media 2015