SPLC Files Lawsuit Against Miss. Town for Denying Gay Bar License
Pat Newton, whose O'Hara's bar was featured in the 2006 Documentary "Small Town Gay Bar," found herself in the middle of a controversy on Tuesday when the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal lawsuit, on her behalf, against the town of Shannon, Miss. and its officials, after its mayor and aldermen denied her a business license to reopen her establishment.
In the complaint, which was filed today with United States District Court Northern District of Mississippi Aberdeen Division, the SPLC charges the town of Shannon and its leaders with violating Newton's right of free speech and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments.
"The mayor and aldermen have no legitimate reason to deny Pat Newton the business license," said David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director. "Their opposition is rooted in blatant hostility toward a legitimate business, simply because a lesbian would operate it and because it would serve the LGBT community. They have discriminated against our client, even relishing the opportunity to discriminate."
By "relishing the opportunity to discriminate," Dinielli refers to one alderman involved in the case, who publicly stated that he looked forward to this lawsuit because litigation would likely delay the opening of O'Hara's even longer despite Shannon's shrinking tax base. According to Wikipedia, the town has a median household income of $29,773 with 18.4 percent of the population falling below the poverty line.
According to a statement released by the SPLC, Newton operated a bar called O'Hara's in the community from 1994 to 1998, and it mainly served LGBT customers. After receiving numerous requests to reopen the bar, she entered into a lease and obtained a state business license and liquor license. She poured thousands of dollars and countless hours into upgrading the bar in preparing for its opening.
When she asked about obtaining a local business license, the mayor 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. After stating her reasons, the mayor asked the aldermen and citizens to raise their concerns. Newton was confronted with questions laced with insults from citizens and aldermen. 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, an adviser to the town 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 denied the application by a 4-to-1 vote - even though no legitimate evidence regarding public health and safety was presented.
"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."