In Ark., a complex divide on religious freedom, gay rights
BERRYVILLE, Ark. — Crosses of varying size adorn the walls at a decades-old flower shop just off the main square, the heart of this traditional Bible Belt community. Across the street, a small museum boasts a collection of nearly 1,000 handguns.
Rhonda Oberg’s Nita-Faye Flowers and Gifts is just the kind of business many would see as benefiting from a so-called religious freedom law, which could allow her to refuse to sell flowers for gay weddings. And conservative Berryville is just the kind of place where such a law might be welcomed.
But even in a place where churches outnumber restaurants, many of those often touted as the law’s beneficiaries — such as florists and caterers — don’t see an overwhelming need. In fact, some question its very spirit.
“Discrimination is discrimination,” said Oberg, who has no qualms offering bright wedding bouquets to the neighboring gay-friendly town of Eureka Springs. “It’s ridiculous.”
Oberg is the unwitting pawn in an ideological battle that is playing out in state houses from Maine to Louisiana. It has moved fastest in Arkansas and Indiana, where conservative politicians and religious activists have demanded residents receive a legal right to insulate themselves from a potential encroachment on their faith, such as refusing services for events like gay weddings.
But here in this Republican stronghold, locals paint a picture far less stark than that portrayed by the loudest voices of the religious right. Regions like this one, where faith and daily life intertwine, reveal a country grappling with a much more nuanced and complex divide between personal convictions and the cultural shift over same-sex marriage.
“A lot of people are shaking their heads and saying, ‘Why?’” said Mayor Tim McKinney of Berryville, who labels himself a “limpin’, yellowdog Democrat.”
“The God I know, he lives in everybody.”
The religious liberty debate roiling the country has roots in a 1993 bill signed by Arkansas’ own President Bill Clinton, long before gay marriage even became a topic. Its supporters included Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act required the government to have a serious reason before intruding on someone’s religious beliefs and, if it must, to do so in the least restrictive way possible. Its impetus traced back to a man who had been fired from his job for using peyote in a Native American Church ritual.
A Supreme Court ruling four years later determined the law applied only to the federal government, leading 19 states to pass their own rules.
Initial bills passed last month in Arkansas and Indiana made no mention of gays or lesbians, but opponents saw the new laws as a means for conservative Christians to exempt themselves from the country’s tilt toward same-sex marriage. The laws’ backers insist the legislation was simply meant to protect a wide swath of religious voices.
“This doesn’t give a win to anybody; what it does is require a balance,” said state Representative Bob Ballinger, a Republican sponsor of the bill whose law office sits in Berryville. It “protects the right to believe what you want to believe.”
Ballinger first introduced the religious freedom bill two years ago, and has worked closely with the Arkansas Family Council, an organization that promotes conservative values and opposes gay marriage. Ballinger, whose bill earned him an appearance on CNN, could not name a business that backed it but said in an interview that he has heard from more supporters than dissenters.
The state’s top businesses were not among those supporters. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and Arkansas’ biggest corporation, attacked the bill on grounds that it threatened to undermine the state’s “spirit of inclusion.” Acxiom, the state’s biggest tech company, also opposed the bill.
Republican governors in both states, faced with increasing backlash nationwide, refused to sign measures passed by their legislatures and asked lawmakers to amend them. The compromise deal hashed out by Arkansas lawmakers excludes actions by businesses. For both states, the laws’ ultimate meaning is unclear.
Friction over gay marriage is unavoidable in close-knit Berryville, a small town on the edge of the Ozarks. Here Fox News loops at the local McDonald’s and many residents do not support same-sex marriage. Jokes about the gay population in Eureka Springs, 13 miles away, are common.
Cases do exist across the country where devout Christians have been punished in court for refusing to provide professional services — such as photographing a wedding, or providing the cake — for a gay marriage.
Supporters of the law often point to an eastern Washington florist who was sued by the state in 2013 for refusing to provide a wedding arrangement for a longtime gay customer. A state judge ruled in February that she violated Washington’s antidiscrimination law and must pay damages.
These instances are rare, but reinforce a fundamental fear among some Christians that religious values will get trampled under the guise of tolerance, a kind of reverse discrimination.
“What is changing is the attitude toward Christianity and with that, the cultural changes are putting us in a position of having to do things we shouldn’t have to do,” said Larry Montgomery, a former Baptist pastor and semi-retired realtor who rents Ballinger his office across the street. He supports the principles behind the bill.
Montgomery considers homosexuality a choice, and cannot bring himself to condone it. But he welcomes gays into his church, as long as they do not participate in the teachings.
Change is happening fast.
Hundreds of same-sex couples got married in Arkansas last May after a county circuit judge struck down the state’s prohibition on gay marriage. The Arkansas Supreme Court quickly suspended the ruling pending an appeal. Justices heard arguments in November but have not issued a ruling. The ban is back in place.
Uncertainty over the state’s same-sex marriage ban — and a looming decision by the Supreme Court this summer — have fueled social conservatives’ sense of urgency.
“The other side falsely thinks they have won on same-sex marriage,” said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a Washington-based group that promotes traditional unions. “All of their resources are being spent on [killing religious freedom bills], what they deem as the next big threat.”
More than the Kings River separates the agricultural community of Berryville from the tourist enclave of Eureka Springs. Winding roads lead to Victorian-style bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants featuring beef carpaccio. Locals call this artsy town “where the misfits fit.”
The only city in the state with a domestic partnership registry, it also became the first in February to pass a local ordinance banning gay discrimination.
But it is still Arkansas, and residents feuding over gay rights found themselves on opposite sides of the street one recent Saturday as the third annual Celebrate Jesus Easter Parade kicked off downtown.
Not only did it coincide with Diversity Weekend, tensions flared after organizers uninvited the Methodist congregation that welcomes gays.
“God finally said to me, ‘You have to do something!’ ’’ said Laura Nichols, the parade organizer who banned Methodists from marching and supports the new religious freedom law as “better than nothing.’’
The Methodists and their supporters set up on the deck of the New Delhi Café, which would later host Diversity Weekend celebrants and feature a burlesque show.
They served popcorn and sold rainbow knickknacks. Mugs on one table read, “I’m So Gay I Can’t Even Drink Straight.” Signs near the entrance said, “Jesus Loves All.” A rainbow-colored human butterfly danced nearby.
On the opposite side of the street, performers stood on stage and alternated between full-throated Gospel music and peppy Christian bluegrass. Four marchers dressed as Jesus, two resurrection caves on flatbed trucks, and countless crosses passed by.
Everyone waved — on both sides of the street.
Nichols, a soft-spoken 76-year-old pastor’s wife, passed around a typed statement on Saturday that said she had nothing against the gay community and insisted everyone was welcome to “join in celebrating Jesus.”
Before Saturday’s evening drum gathering, and even before the Christian music had concluded in the downtown park, one of the Methodist representatives walked up to Nichols.
The women hugged.
Eureka Springs’ 67-foot Jesus is visible from the storied 1886 Crescent Hotel, where same-sex unions have taken place in its spacious back gardens. The white mortar statue, its arms outstretched, serves as a marker for the Passion play arena used for performances of Christ’s crucifixion since 1968. Down the road at the First Christian Church, the juxtaposition is not lost on Pastor Philip Wilson.
The religious leader has helped lead a challenge to the town’s ordinance banning discrimination against gay residents.
“There’s a tension we are trying to settle between the rights of the LGBT community and the rights of the religious community to practice their faith in places larger than a sanctuary,” Wilson said. “Somebody has to speak for God in this mess.”
Numerous stores along Eureka Springs’ main street have placed blue signs in their windows to signal support for the town ordinance banning discrimination against gays.
Lamont Richie-Roberson, a gay Methodist and county quorum court judge, and Eureka Springs city councilman James DeVito finished their drinks on the deck of DeVito’s Italian restaurant as a pro-ordinance event concluded. They applauded the turnout, bemoaned the new state religious freedom law, and launched into a history lesson about the town and its inhabitants.
“People are trying to make a point,” DeVito said of the ordinance backlash in a town known more for its healing waters. Overall, “I don’t see much animosity.”
In Berryville, too, hostility is tempered.
Ryan Elkins held his own conversation one sunny afternoon in the local, shoe-sized barber shop. His family owns a restaurant in town and said he did not believe any business should feel forced to serve someone. But he could not recall anyone who had actually refused a paycheck for the cause.
“I don’t know why there is a big conflict,” he said. “I wouldn’t think anything of it.”