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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 11 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 41
Mississippi town faces lawsuit over Gay bar
Section One
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Mississippi town faces lawsuit over Gay bar

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Shannon, Mississippi, for denying a business license to a Lesbian who wants to open a bar there.

Shannon, a town of some 1,750 inhabitants in the northeast corner of the state, was one of the locales for the 2006 film Small Town Gay Bar by Malcolm Ingram. Rumors, the bar featured in the film, is now closed, leaving Shannon without a Gay bar.

The business license applicant, Pat Newton, ran a bar called O'Hara's in Shannon from 1994 to 1998, catering to a mainly Gay clientele. After receiving numerous requests to reopen her bar, she signed a lease last May and obtained a state business license and liquor license.

In her court filing, Newton says she poured thousands of dollars and countless hours into upgrading the bar and preparing for its opening.

However, when Newton asked local officials about obtaining a town business license, she ran into roadblocks, she says.

HOSTILE RECEPTION
The town's mayor, Ronnie Hallmark, told her to submit an application and attend a Board of Aldermen meeting on June 4, when the board would vote on her application. Newton thought the hearing would be routine, but instead she encountered a hostile crowd of 30 to 40 people.

The mayor asked her to justify why she should be permitted to open the bar. Newton said she wanted to provide a safe place for the LGBT community to come together, and that she had been asked by community members to return.

The mayor then asked the aldermen and citizens to raise their concerns. Newton says she was confronted with questions laced with insults from both citizens and officials. One resident 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, City Attorney Gary Carnathan informed the board that Newton had met all the requirements for her application, but that the application could be denied on public health and safety concerns. The board then denied the application by a vote of 4 to 1, although no evidence of health and safety risks had been presented.

Newton's filing also cites repeated late-night phone calls telling her she would never be able to open the bar, and suggesting she leave town.

Newton's attorneys are seeking an injunction allowing her to open the business, an award of damages, and any attorney fees and costs.

NATIONWIDE IMPACT
'It's important, obviously, to [Newton] personally but it's also important for her and us to show the country that everyone deserves to be treated equally, whether that's in New York, San Francisco, or rural Mississippi,' said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the SPLC.

'It is important to show that you can't violate people's rights and freedom,' Newton added. 'Folks in the LGBT community from small towns have to drive a long ways to a city where they can find a place to be themselves, and we need something like this.'

One town alderman told the SPLC that he would rather fight a federal lawsuit than allow a Gay bar to operate within the town's boundaries. Newton's complaint quotes him as saying that he is looking forward to the lawsuit because litigation would likely delay the opening of O'Hara's even longer.

The SPLC was founded in 1971 as a civil rights law firm helping mainly African American clients recover damages after Ku Klux Klan assaults. It has since branched out to tackle discrimination against a number of communities and has become one of the country's leading human rights activist organizations.

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