- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A state judge on Tuesday upheld a northwest Arkansas city’s ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, ruling that it doesn’t conflict with a law aimed at blocking local protections for gays and lesbians.

Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin ruled that the Fayetteville ordinance ratified by voters last year doesn’t run afoul of a state measure barring cities and counties from prohibiting discrimination on a basis not contained in state law.

Arkansas’ civil rights law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity. Martin sided with supporters of the Fayetteville ordinance who pointed to those protections being mentioned elsewhere in state law.

“Clearly, the classifications of gender identity and sexual orientation were classifications of persons protected on bases contained in state law prior to the enactment of (Fayetteville’s ordinance),” Martin wrote.

His ruling did not address whether the state law was unconstitutional. Fayetteville officials said they expected the case to ultimately wind up before the state Supreme Court.

Martin’s decision is the first court victory for opponents of the state’s ban on local protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the restriction on the local ordinances to become law without his signature, citing concerns about it infringing on local government control.

“I think it’s a great victory for equality,” said Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan. “It’s a great day when you can see law, fairness and justice come together.”

Fayetteville’s ordinance is similar to an anti-discrimination measure approved by voters in the neighboring tourist town of Eureka Springs. Little Rock, Hot Springs and Pulaski County also have approved more scaled-back ordinances that apply only to their agencies and contractors.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said in a non-binding advisory opinion last year that the five local ordinances were unenforceable because of the new state law. Rutledge had intervened in the lawsuit challenging Fayetteville’s ordinance.

Rutledge “respectfully disagrees with the ruling,” her spokesman Judd Deere said. “She’ll continue to evaluate it and make a determination concerning any potential appeal.”

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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