By Wes Putt
Four miles from downtown Eureka Springs, at an altitude of 1,500 feet, a seven-story white-mortar tower of Jesus Christ overlooks the town with arms wide open. One can imagine that some Eurekans glanced in its direction to see if those massive arms had come alive and sternly crossed themselves the day Mayor Dani Wilson read aloud Ordinance 2052.
Wilson explained to the Eureka Springs City Council on March 26 that the ordinance would allow the city to recognize and issue certificates of domestic partnerships. For $35, any two people over the age of 18 can sign a declaration and be issued documentation thereof. The document’s sole purpose is to recognize a couple’s commitment to one another. The financial benefits of the registry are entirely dependent on the institution where one is employed.
Hold the phone. Did she say anybody? Commence the politics.
Two weeks later, the council met to take a second vote on the ordinance, allowing open discussion from the public as is customary. Twenty people made statements, evenly divided by supporters and dissenters. The next meeting produced 15 statements with eight speaking for it, and seven against.
“I never saw it coming,” alderwoman Charlotte Buchanan said, “It just showed up one day. Most of the people who spoke at the meeting were not even registered voters (of Eureka Springs).”
Enter the Rev. Philip Wilson, pastor of First Christian Church of Eureka Springs. The Reverend is no relation to Mayor Wilson. Rev. Wilson staunchly opposes the ordinance for several reasons. He was quoted as saying that Eureka Springs is supposed to be marketed as a family-friendly Victorian village, with Victorian values. In political ads that ran in two Eureka Springs publications, the organization Eureka Cares declared the ordinance an ‘incremental attack on marriage.’ The action sidesteps a state amendment in 2004 that defined marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman, it said.
The Domestic Partnership Registry (DPR) is not a legal document, Mayor Wilson said during a reading of the ordinance. It is simply a way to generate revenue by recognizing the diversity of Eureka Springs. Buchanan doesn’t see the harm in passing the DPR. In a state that ranks fifth highest in divorce rates, perhaps couples need training wheels before making the big step toward marriage. As for the couples that can’t marry, the DPR is simply a measure that promotes love, Buchanan said.
Regardless of its legal standing, Rev. Wilson continued to take action. In an e-mail reply to a request for comment, Rev. Wilson stated “Yesterday evening, June 14 at 4:30 p.m., I delivered 171 signatures on a referendum petition to Mary Jean “MJ” Sell, City Clerk of Eureka Springs, in order to fulfill the legal requirement of 144 signatures required to call for a referendum election.”
If the city had not already issued a ballot request on another matter, the petitioned referendum would end up as a standalone issue, that would cost the city at least $3,000. Election cost estimates were said to be anywhere between $3,000 to $10,000 during council discussion, Sell said.
However, Rev. Wilson was able to gather the signatures in time for the DPR to be put on the same ballot, thus saving the city another set of election costs.
If only it were that simple. Sell denied the petition initially due to improper language in the title, failing to present a copy of the ordinance to signees, and above all else, failing to specifically request a special vote. In the end, the petition was effectively a fancy list of names. Some signers came forward later and admitted not knowing exactly what they’d signed, Buchanan said.
In the same e-mail from Rev. Wilson, he pointed to a website called EurekaCares.com, where he suggested that discussion on the issue could be found. The website itself was created two days after the DPR passed its third unanimous vote by the city council. It presents itself as a concerned organization that blankets Eureka Springs issues. Seven posts are made about general topics and over 120 posts are made in discussion of the DPR, at least 20 percent of which are by the pseudonym “Warbler,” a writer who often cites passages of the Bible. Warbler speaks about the petition as if it is his or her very own project. Those are just the facts.
In Warbler’s latest post (as of June 27): “Last night Vernon Payne and I submitted a second Referendum Petition to Mary Jean Sell, Eureka Springs City Clerk. She disallowed it–again! It met all requirements of law, in our opinion.”
Vernon Payne is a pastor at Holiday Island Baptist Church, six miles north of Eureka Springs. He has been involved since the beginning but has not made his opposition as public as Rev. Wilson. It was Payne who immediately began collecting signatures from area residents, including non-Eurekans who opposed Ordinance 2052. His petition was simply a poll, he said, that had over 100 names of people who did not agree with the DPR. When he presented the “straw poll” to the council during the second reading, it was met with a blind eye. “The council was completely unresponsive,” Payne said.
“Brother Wilson actually created the EurekaCares.com website to garnish support for discussion, as a sounding board,” Payne said. “I don’t know whether he is the one making posts as ‘Warbler’ though.”
Warbler’s latest post continued with “We are attempting to discern whether this denial by MJ [Mary Jean Sell] was a legal requirement that she was legitimately enforcing based on state statute or municipal code, or a capricious requirement based on a personal agenda to see our petition declared invalid.”
“We were certainly disappointed,” Payne said especially since it had not been approved despite conceding to the council’s request of submitting it several days earlier than the official deadline in order to spare the budget from higher election costs.
“Right now, we’re having the petition looked at by attorneys and other entities to determine any possible recourse.” Payne said. This could include renewing the effort with an initiative petition calling for a referendum election on Ordinance 2052.
Three months after that fateful day when Mayor Wilson submitted Ordinance 2052 for a vote, a quick phone call confirmed that the statue of Christ remains intact. A front desk person at the Crescent Hotel described its condition as “still there, with arms wide open.”
Victory for Domestic Partners…For Now
By Wes Putt
The town where the same church that presents The Great Passion Play has a museum full of dinosaur skeletons, where a 7-story statue of Jesus Christ overlooks one of the most liberally progressive cities in the Arkansas, has recently added a new feature to its resume.
Eureka Springs began offering a domestic partnership registry on June 22, spurring what many believe will draw unprecedented numbers of same-sex couples to the Ozark town.
It all began when Mayor Dana Wilson was approached by an elderly couple who could not marry without giving up a bulk of their social security and pension benefits, said Bryan Manire to The Morning News’ staff writer John Henley Jr.
Manire’s mother, Mary Short and her partner Frank Gilbert took their problem to the town’s mayor, who in turn set the course for the town’s first domestic partnership registry.
Over the course of this heavily debated campaign, Gilbert passed away a month before the registry was approved for the final time.
Despite the original motive, Ordinance 2052 became a “gay issue.” The big question: Whether or not allowing domestic partnerships will damage the town’s image or economics.
Denise Coleman does not believe that allowing domestic partnerships will damage Eureka Springs. Coleman owns Candlestick Cottage Inn, and participates in an ongoing promotion among select businesses that offer “diversity rates.” Simply mentioning the special rate will knock $10 off the nightly rate.
“I know we’re in the middle of the Bible Belt, but Eureka has always been pretty progressive,” Coleman said. “It didn’t hurt San Francisco, or the entire state of California.”
California currently recognizes domestic partnerships to the extent that it is practically a civil union. Arkansas voters chose to ban gay marriages by a margin of 40 percent with more than two-thirds of the voters against it. The federal government does not recognize domestic partnerships at all.
Rev. Steve Urie, pastor of Metropolitan Community Church in Eureka Springs has already received several calls requesting him to preside in ‘commitment ceremonies’ for couples who have registered as domestic partners. Urie said he would be delighted to preside in such occasions.
“I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state,” Urie said. “Our church believes it is the right of everybody to have a caring relationship with anyone.”
Urie said it’s not an issue of economics, but civil rights. As far as religion is concerned, the Bible should not be used to put down minority groups, he said.
“There was a time when the Bible was used to promote slavery, a time when, according to the Bible, women could not be leaders in the church, and now it is being used to promote homophobia.
“The story of Sodom (of the book Genesis in the Bible) had nothing to do with being gay, but with hospitality.”
Urie explained that the unwelcoming and judgmental attitude of the city of Sodom is what led to its divine demise.
Although the federal government refuses to recognize domestic partnerships, it has not swayed Eureka Springs and several national corporations that offer benefits to its full time employees and their domestic partners. Organizations on the corporate, city, and state levels have taken policy into their own hands.
Hendrix College in Conway, offers insurance benefits for domestic partners of Hendrix employees. Axciom Corporation has done the same and AT&T announced recently that it too has begun recognizing the domestic partners of its employees. The entire state of California recognizes domestic partnerships and Massachusetts allows civil unions.
Economic issues aside, many support a domestic partnership registry simply because the exalted state of marriage is considered by some a perpetual crisis zone. Arkansas has one of the highest for divorce rates in the nation.
Jerry Cox, president of the Family Council of Arkansas, applauded the efforts of those in Eureka Springs who are working against the DPR, however the Family Council has not taken an active role. Cox said that Eureka Springs is being quietly mentioned as a “gay” city.
“This ordinance will continue fostering that image—one that has already made a negative impact on tourism,” Cox said, “It is possible, depending on how the City implements the ordinance, that it could end up violating the Arkansas Marriage Amendment.
“One provision of that amendment states that relationships similar to marriage will not be recognized. Philosophically, the ordinance is significant in that it confers the “blessing” of a city on a particular lifestyle. The Arkansas Marriage Amendment passed with 75 percent of the vote statewide. However, voters in Eureka Springs rejected that measure by a margin of about 60 percent to 40 percent in November 2004.”
Currently the Family Council of Arkansas is initiating a ban on gay foster parents. In a policy brief on the organization’s website, Arkansas Senate Bill 959 will prohibit “Homosexual Adoption and Foster Care.” It states that “children being placed in a foster home are coming from an unstable background; they do not need to be placed into another unstable home.”
Eureka Springs Alderman Charlotte Buchanan, one of the six city council members who unanimously voted to approve the DPR called this action by the Family Council unfortunate.
“Who’s to say who is allowed to have a loving family?” Buchanan asked and called the state of politics an emotional stone-age.
“The face of the American family is changing, and people are just going to have to deal with that.”