- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Little Rock officials voted Tuesday to prohibit the city and companies contracting with it from discriminating based on sexual orientation or gender identity, challenging a new Arkansas law criticized as anti-gay.

The ordinance approved by the city’s board on a 7-2 vote bans discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in hiring and city services, including those offered through outside vendors.

Little Rock is among several Arkansas cities trying to expand anti-discrimination protections after the state faced a backlash over religious objections measures that critics said were discriminatory. Supporters say the move is needed to counter the impression left by the state adopting those laws.

“I think we’re sending a message that we’re a welcoming community, that we’re diverse, that we realize that’s good for business, that we value all of our citizens,” said City Director Kathy Webb, the sponsor of the proposal. “I think that’s very important to make that kind of statement for Little Rock.”

Arkansas lawmakers earlier this month approved a bill that was revamped in response to criticism from some of the state’s largest employers - including mega-retailer Wal-Mart - that an initial version endorsed discrimination against gays and lesbians. Arkansas earlier this year also became the second state after Tennessee to bar local governments from expanding anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The law prohibits local ordinances from prohibiting discrimination on a basis not recognized by the state, and Arkansas is among 29 states that don’t include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination laws. The new state law doesn’t apply to a city and county’s policies applying to its employees, which Little Rock’s ordinance would cover. The Little Rock proposal goes a step further with the restriction on anyone who contracts with the city.

Little Rock’s attorney said he believes the provision is legal, noting that other state laws dealing with cyberbullying and domestic violence shelters prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

But the state senator behind the Arkansas law, which is set to take effect in late July, has said he believes it at least goes against the spirit of the measure he introduced.

“I’m certainly not an attorney, but I would think if you’re a vendor you’ve got a good defense against this because of (the law),” said Republican Sen. Bart Hester of Cave Springs.

A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge declined to comment on Little Rock’s proposal and whether it would conflict with the state law.

Webb, a former state representative who was the first openly gay member of the Arkansas Legislature, said she expected other cities to follow Little Rock’s lead with similar measures. The ordinance had the backing of business groups such as the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

One of the city two directors who opposed the ordinance, which takes effect immediately, said she would have likely supported the measure had it only dealt with the city’s employees.

“But when we start expanding to businesses, and we tell businesses how they’re going to conduct their employees, I think that’s a different story,” Director B.J. Wyrick said after the vote.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT rights group, praised the city’s move.

“City leaders here in Little Rock are taking a bold, courageous and much-needed stand to protect city workers,” HRC’s Arkansas Director Kendra Johnson said in a statement.

The next fight over the anti-discrimination restrictions comes May 12, when residents of Eureka Springs - a popular tourist destination in northwest Arkansas - will vote on an ordinance prohibiting the city and businesses from discriminating against LGBT people. Eureka Springs’ city council approved the ordinance in February, as state lawmakers were considering the limits on local protections, and later called a referendum on whether to keep the measure in place.

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

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