By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that state law barred local governments from enacting ordinances banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, but justices did not address the law's constitutionality.
The unanimous decision voided anti-discrimination protections passed in 2015 in Fayetteville, a liberal city that is home to the state’s flagship university, as well as similar ordinances adopted by other local governments in the politically conservative state.
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State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, had appealed a lower court ruling upholding the Fayetteville ordinance, which prohibited discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in employment, hiring and other aspects of commerce.
Rutledge cited an Arkansas law forbidding cities and counties from extending nondiscrimination protections beyond those classes identified at the state level.
The legislature passed that measure in 2015 after initial attempts by Fayetteville to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance failed.Fayetteville and several other cities then passed ordinances in response to state law.
Although other state statutes against bullying and spousal abuse include gender identity and sexual orientation, the Arkansas civil rights code makes no mention of either.
In siding with Rutledge, the Supreme Court held that the state civil rights law was the controlling statute.The court said Fayetteville's city ordinance could not stand because it created a direct inconsistency between state and municipal law.
Left undecided was whether the underlying state law passed constitutional muster. The court returned that issue to the local trial judge for consideration.
Rutledge said she was grateful for the ruling, noting that Arkansas' law required “discrimination protection be addressed at the state level and be uniform throughout the state.”
LGBT advocates, who argue the state law banning local protections for gay and transgender people is discriminatory, said they were disappointed.
"We would have preferred to have a final outcome today, but I’m certain there will be further appellate review after the trial court rehears the case,” said Holly Dickson, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union at Little Rock.
The ACLU filed a brief in support of the Fayetteville ordinance.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Leslie Adler)