Arkansas Pastors and Local Christians Are Fighting a Homosexual Rights Ordinance that Could Threaten Tourism

© Andrea Morales for The New York Times The Rev. Randall Christy, who operates the Passion Play, contends that Christian visitors are the foundation of the tourism trade in the area.
© Andrea Morales for The New York Times The Rev. Randall Christy, who operates the Passion Play, contends that Christian visitors are the foundation of the tourism trade in the area.

The Rev. Randall Christy was sitting in the amphitheater of “The Great Passion Play“ Friday afternoon, two weeks before opening night. Below him, amid a stage set meant to evoke ancient Jerusalem, a cast member in a baseball cap took Pontius Pilate’s horse-drawn chariot on a practice run.

But Mr. Christy was speaking about more contemporary troubles nearby, in the gay-friendly little tourist town over the hill.

Mr. Christy and his allies here contend that Christian visitors are the foundation of the tourism trade in Eureka Springs, a Victorian-era spa town of 2,100 residents in northwest Arkansas near the Missouri border. For nearly five decades, those visitors have flocked to the Passion Play, the seasonal outdoor depiction of Jesus’ final days that is presented in this 4,000-seat amphitheater. But in recent years, Mr. Christy said, those tourists have become more reluctant to visit Eureka Springs because of efforts to promote the town as the “Gay Capital of the Ozarks.”

“I think that is a mistake,” said Mr. Christy, the pastor of Union Valley Baptist Church in Ada., Okla., and founder of a gospel radio network who has operated the nonprofit Passion Play since late 2012. “Family vacation destination should be the thrust of this town again.”

As the Supreme Court prepares to consider same-sex marriage cases, there are few places where the struggle between traditional values and gay rights is playing out as starkly as it has in Eureka Springs, a Bible Belt city that is both a haven for social liberals and a famous destination for the devout. It is a city perhaps most famous for a seven-story-tall hillside statue called “Christ of the Ozarks,” erected in 1966 by the Passion Play’s founder Gerald L.K. Smith, an anti-Semitic preacher and political organizer. But it is also a city that created a domestic partners registry in 2007 and where gays have long been welcomed in keeping with an unofficial mantra that Eureka Springs is a place “where misfits fit.”

Over the years, the conservatives who support the Passion Play and the liberals, among them many aging counterculture characters who arrived in the early 1970s, have managed to coexist, in fluctuating states of harmony, détente and discord. But in recent weeks, a bitter debate over a new antidiscrimination ordinance has become hopelessly tangled with divisive questions of civic identity and economic survival.

The ordinance, unanimously approved in early February by the City Council, seeks to protect gay people and others against discrimination in housing, employment, business and city services. The liberal-leaning City Council declared that it was reacting to the Republican-controlled Arkansas legislature and a law it would soon pass prohibiting local governments from enforcing antidiscrimination laws.

The law will take effect this summer, rendering the local ordinance useless in the short term. But Mayor Robert Berry said it could eventually be the basis for a legal challenge.

“It gives the citizens the ability to carry this question to a higher level,” he said. “We really believe this ultimately will be decided in the courts.”

Local conservatives mounted a challenge of their own, effectively forcing the Council to put the measure on a May 12 ballot.

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Source: The New York Times |  RICHARD FAUSSET

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