LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas' highest court on Thursday said a city can't enforce its ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, saying it's already ruled the measure violates a state law aimed at preventing local protections for LGBTQ people.
The state Supreme Court unanimously reversed a Washington County judge's decision to allow Fayetteville to continue enforcing its anti-discrimination ordinance while the city challenged the constitutionality of a 2015 law preventing cities and counties from enacting protections not covered by state law. Arkansas' civil rights law doesn't cover sexual orientation or gender identity.
The court in 2017 ruled the ordinance violated the state law. Citing that decision, justices on Thursday reversed Judge Doug Martin's ruling and dismissed the case. In Thursday's ruling and the previous decision, the court did not rule on whether the state law was constitutional.
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"Because the circuit court exceeded its jurisdiction on remand, its actions following remand are void," Justice Robin Wynne wrote. "The order denying the preliminary injunction is reversed, and, because the sole issue over which the circuit court properly had jurisdiction was conclusively decided by this court in our 2017 opinion, the matter is dismissed in its entirety."
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have non-discrimination laws based on sexual orientation and gender identity covering employment, housing, public accommodations, credit and insurance, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas' flagship campus and a gay pride parade that organizers tout as the largest in the state, is considered a liberal enclave in a conservative region of the state. It's one of several cities that approved local protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in response to the 2015 state law. The court in 2017 rejected the city's argument that it was allowed because LGBTQ protections are included in other parts of state law.
"Today's unanimous decisions reaffirm the state's authority to ensure uniformity of anti-discrimination laws statewide and to prevent businesses from facing a patchwork of nondiscrimination ordinances," Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican who had argued against the ordinance, said in a statement. "These decisions show that the city of Fayetteville is not above or immune from State law."
Fayetteville City Attorney Kit Williams said he would likely ask the court to reconsider its decision and said the city's argument that the law is unconstitutional remains undecided.
"The city has never had an attempt to defend a citizen-passed ordinance by showing that the state law was an unequal protection of the laws," Williams said. "It seems very strange that they would deny us the right to at least present that constitutional argument to them for their decision."
In a related case, justices said Martin incorrectly ruled that Arkansas' constitution only protects lawmakers from testifying about what they say on the General Assembly floor or in committees but did not say how far that protection went. Martin had ordered sponsors of Arkansas' law on local LGBTQ protections to testify and produce documents in the lawsuit.
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