Following a 6-2 vote Tuesday by the city council, city employees of Conway, Arkansas can (for the time being) go to work with the assurance that they can’t be fired for their sexuality or gender identity. Conway mayor Tab Townsell threw his full support behind the decision to extend protections to the town’s LGBT population despite many of his more conservative constituents voicing concern for their religious liberties.
Mark Ledbetter and Mary Smith, the two council members who opposed the new protections, expressed their belief that the public had not been given adequate time to fully appreciate the implications of heightened job security for Conway’s queer workforce.
Conway’s move to legally protect its LGBT employees comes just days after Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson allowed SB 202 to become law - legislation that expressly forbids local town governments from enacting pro-LGBT policies like Conway’s. Specifically SB 202 requires that:
“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 state law.”
The law is set to go into effect 90 days after the state Legislature formally adjourns, which is currently set for May. After that, Conway's ordinance will no longer protect LGBT folks.
One of the chief concerns raised by opponents of SB 202 was the chilling effect that sanctioning discrimination against queer workers might have on the local economy. Following Hutchinson’s decision representatives from Tyson Foods and Walmart both spoke out on behalf of their companies, expressing their disagreement with the law.
Outcry from large LGBT advocacy organizations like the HRC were conspicuously missing immediately after SB 202 went into effect, prompting Michael Signorile to claim social “malpractice.” Not seizing upon any and all opportunities to draw attention to these kinds of injustices, Signorile reasoned, was irresponsible and linked to a broader sense of gay complacency:
“And it's part of the right's plan to roll back LGBT rights while many LGBT people become complacent or apathetic, buying into this idea that full civil rights are inevitable, pointing, for example, to polling about young people being more accepting, and, well, doing pretty much what many women foolishly did in the early years of the backlash against women's liberation.”
HRC President Chad Griffin soon issued an official statement after widespread criticism for his organization's silence on the developments in Arkansas:
"I’m proud to call Arkansas my home state—the place where my entire extended family has lived for years. I know these bills do not reflect the Arkansas values.
They certainly do not reflect this state’s commitment to growing a 21st Century economy that attracts good paying jobs—and to guaranteeing a business climate that welcomes everyone who is willing to work hard and build a better future for themselves and for their community. These kinds of political attacks have been rejected by Republicans and Democrats all across this country. Let’s not let Arkansas be dragged backward by an unrepresentative minority."