06/28/2013

SPLC demands Mississippi board end discrimination against business owner

Pat Newton kept getting requests to reopen her business.

In the 1990s, she operated O’Hara’s, a bar that mainly served LGBT customers. In the community of Shannon, Miss., it was a place they could gather and socialize without fear of discrimination. After Newton decided to reopen the business recently, she went before the Shannon Board of Aldermen to get a business license – a hearing she believed would be routine.

It wasn’t.

Newton, a lesbian,  encountered a hostile crowd of more than 30 people at the June 4 meeting. She was confronted with a petition against the bar and with questions laced with insults by citizens and aldermen. She was asked how she could call herself a Christian and whether she would let her daughter go into “a bar like that.”

At the end of the hearing, the board was informed that she had met all the requirements for her application but that the board could deny the application by citing concerns about public health and safety. The board denied the application by a 4-to-1 vote.

“I only wanted to reopen a business that meant so much to so many people,” Newton said. “I’ve already invested a great deal of time and money into my business. I’m committed to my business and this community. It’s wrong for the board to deny my permit because they don’t want a gay bar reopened in the community.”

The SPLC demanded today that the Shannon Board of Aldermen approve a business license for Newton or potentially face a federal lawsuit.

In a letter to the board and mayor, the SPLC said the board’s denial violates the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, and noted that for “well over a century, it has been unconstitutional for a municipality to deny a business license to an applicant on account of hostility towards a particular group.”

The SPLC action came exactly 44 years after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City. The raid and the subsequent riots became a pivotal moment in the LGBT movement’s push to stop government-backed discrimination. The letter also comes the same week the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which barred the government from extending benefits to legally married same-sex couples, as unconstitutional.

 “We’ve come a long way since Stonewall,” said Sam Wolfe, SPLC senior staff attorney. “But in many places, including Shannon, Mississippi, significant progress has yet to be made.”