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Small Arkansas town split over anti-discrimination measure

In this May 6, 2015 photo, a sign in support of an anti-discrimination ordinance is displayed in a retail shop window in Eureka Springs, Ark. Voters in Eureka Springs will decide Tuesday, May 12, 2015 whether to keep a measure that would prohibit the city and private businesses from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation and gender identity. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) — Nestled in the hills of northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs has long relished in its dual personalities — known for its play depicting Jesus’ final days and a 66-foot-tall “Christ of the Ozarks” statue as well as its reputation as a gay-friendly tourist destination, bolstered by being the first in the state to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

That balance of identities will be tested Tuesday, when voters decide whether to repeal a recent local ordinance that extends discrimination protections to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It could set the stage for a broader legal fight over a new state law aimed at preventing cities and counties from expanding discrimination protections, but opponents of the ordinance are casting the election as a fight for the soul of the city of roughly 2,000 people.

“The homosexual agenda has never been challenged with a public vote,” said Philip Wilson, the pastor of First Christian Church who’s leading the opposition. “So it’s basically a crapshoot …The community is going to have the opportunity to make that choice.”

The ordinance approved by Eureka Springs’ city council in February prohibits the city and private businesses from discriminating against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

City officials gave it the green light in direct response to Arkansas lawmakers prohibiting cities and counties from barring discrimination on a basis not contained in state law, a measure that takes effect in late July. Already, Little Rock and Hot Springs have approved more scaled-back discrimination ordinances that only apply to city employees and vendors. But Eureka Springs’ move is the most direct challenge to the state prohibition.

“We don’t go by convention. If somebody tells us you can’t do something, well, watch us,” said James DeVito, the city councilman who introduced the ordinance and owns an Italian restaurant.

Eureka Springs’ measure is also the latest pushback against new laws criticized as anti-gay, such as the religious objection measures that Arkansas and Indiana had to rework last month because of concerns it would sanction discrimination.

Being on the leading edge of the fight for gay rights isn’t anything new for Eureka Springs, which hosts “diversity weekends” throughout the year to celebrate the LGBT community. Back in 2007, the city began issuing certificates recognizing couples’ domestic partnerships, and in 2011, it became the first in the state to provide health insurance to employees’ domestic partners.

And when an Arkansas judge struck down the state’s gay marriage ban last year, the courthouse in the city’s downtown — which is filled with art galleries, restaurants and shops — was the first to issue licenses to same-sex couples. The judge’s ruling was suspended by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on whether same-sex marriage should be legal.

“It’s just finishing civil rights, and we’re considered a welcoming community,” said Dina Landis, who owns a gift shop and has lived in Eureka Springs for 40 years.

Opponents of the ordinance argue it’s another step in a direction that they say threatens the future of the Great Passion Play, a seasonal outdoor production that draws about 50,000 people a year to a campus that includes a Bible museum and the statue of Jesus.

Randall Christy, the play’s chief executive officer, has been among the most vocal opponents of the ordinance, arguing it would unnecessarily split the town and force churches to perform same-sex weddings.

“They have divided this city,” Christy said.

But supporters of the ordinance say the pro-repeal campaign is one doing the dividing with a campaign they say is preying on voters’ fears. Signs hung on residents’ doorknobs urge voters to “keep our daughters safe in Eureka Springs bathrooms” and argue that sexual predators would use the law to falsely claim they’re transgender.

Mayor Robert “Butch” Berry, who supports the ordinance, said he believes his town eventually will come together.

“It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on, let those without sin cast the first stone,” Berry said in Biblical terms. “There’s been a lot of stones cast.”

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