- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A northwest Arkansas city can vote on an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a judge ruled Thursday, rejecting a bid to block the election by opponents who say the measure violates state law.

Washington County Circuit Judge Doug Martin denied the effort to halt the election on the Fayetteville anti-discrimination ordinance, which is planned for Tuesday. Protect Fayetteville, a group opposed to the ordinance, had sought a temporary restraining order against the election earlier this week.

Martin said opponents waited too late to challenge the election, noting it was filed the day before early voting began.

“In other words, the plaintiffs failed to pursue their petitions expeditiously in order to obtain mandamus relief prior to the election, and the plaintiffs offer no compelling reason for their delay in filing the petitions,” he wrote. Martin canceled a hearing he had scheduled for Friday on the motion.

The head of Protect Fayetteville did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday. The group said in a post on its Facebook page that it was disappointed with Martin’s decision and planned to continue challenging the measure’s legality.

“Our legal team is currently reviewing our rights of appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court,” the group said.

The group campaigning for the ordinance said it was pleased with his ruling.

“I think Judge Martin was correct in finding that the 11th hour motion to stop the election from happening was a ploy to stop people from exercising their democratic right at the ballot box,” said Danielle Weatherby, an executive committee member of For Fayetteville.

Fayetteville and four other municipalities - Little Rock, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and Pulaski County - have adopted varying protections for LGBT people in response to a new state law preventing local ordinances that ban discrimination on a basis not covered in state law. Protect Fayetteville’s lawsuit, in part, argued the ordinance violated that new law.

Arkansas’ civil rights law doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity, but supporters of the local ordinances have pointed to other state laws that include such protections.

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said in a non-binding advisory opinion this week that the five ordinances are unenforceable because of the new law. Officials from the five cities have said they believe their measures are still legal and planned to continue enforcing them.

Martin’s four-page decision did not directly address any of Protect Fayetteville’s claims about the ordinance’s legality. Weatherby said the group was confident it complied with state law.

Tuesday’s vote will be the second on an anti-discrimination ordinance in Fayetteville over the past year. Voters in December repealed an earlier anti-discrimination ordinance passed that fall by the City Council. The revised version includes several changes, including broader exemptions for churches and religious organizations.


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

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