After receiving multiple requests to reopen her business, Pat Newton decided in 2013 to reopen O’Hara’s, a sports bar and grill that mainly served LGBT customers in the small community of Shannon, Miss., until it closed several years ago.
When Newton, a lesbian, went before the town’s board of aldermen for her business license – a hearing she believed to be routine – she encountered a hostile crowd of 30 to 40 people.
Newton was confronted with questions laced with insults by citizens and aldermen. One citizen asked how Newton could call herself a Christian. Another asked whether she would let her daughter go into “a bar like that.”
At the end of the hearing, the board was informed that Newton had met all the requirements for her application but the application could be denied on public health and safety concerns. The board denied the application by a 4-to-1 vote – even though no legitimate evidence regarding public health and safety was presented.
The SPLC demanded that the board reconsider the vote at its next meeting or face a federal lawsuit. In a letter to the board and mayor, the SPLC outlined the unconstitutional behavior Newton encountered. The next day, the aldermen refused to reconsider the license. The mayor also refused a request to explain why the license was being denied.
The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit against the town and its leaders for violating Newton’s right to free speech and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments. It notes that the town cannot deny a license because of hostility toward members of a particular group. The town not only denied Newtown’s license but denied earlier requests to open other LGBT establishments while allowing bars unaffiliated with LGBT people to operate in the town.
One alderman stated that the town, which struggles with a shrinking tax base, welcomed the prospect of fighting a federal lawsuit rather than allow a gay bar, which would generate tax money, to operate within the town.
The lawsuit also accuses the mayor, town and aldermen of conspiring to violate Newton’s civil rights. It describes how city leaders encouraged townspeople to oppose the license application and convened an unannounced meeting to close ranks against Newton before a hearing during which she was expected to request the aldermen to reconsider her license application.
The parties in the PJ Newton case settled the case in May 2014 to the parties' mutual satisfaction. Both sides agreed to keep the terms confidential. The case is now closed.