Miss. Town Sued for Denying Gay Bar Business Permit

Posted October 11, 2013 in Gay and Lesbian issues by

Beer glass on a bar

George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

A Mississippi woman has launched a federal lawsuit against the town leaders of Shannon for denying her a business permit to open a gay bar.

Pat Newton had previously operated the bar, called O’Hara’s, in the 1990s. In 1998 she sold it to owners who changed the name but continued to attract an LGBT clientele.

The bar eventually shut down in 2010, and Newton said she responded to a community demand to reopen it — currently, she says there are no gay bars within 100 miles of the northern Mississippi town.

She got a business license from the state and poured money into the building to get it ready, then applied for a business permit from the town, figuring it wouldn’t pose much of an obstacle. When she arrived at a town meeting, however, she was in for an ugly surprise. 

“I didn’t expect 30 to 40 townspeople to show up for what I thought would be routine approval of my business license,” Newton said on a Huffpo Live broadcast. Her permit was summarily denied with the explanation that it would be a public health and safety hazard.

Newton had little recourse at the local level — she appealed to the town to reconsider her application, but they simply refused to do so and that was that. With no further mechanism within local law, she launched a lawsuit in federal court claiming that her constitutional rights had been violated. 


Constitutional Violations

The lawsuit alleges that the town’s mayor and several of its aldermen violated both the First and the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by denying the permit because Newton is a lesbian and wanted to cater to gay customers.

The Fourteenth Amendment grants citizens equal protection under the law, and the suit cites several Supreme Court cases that uphold the idea that to make it “more difficult for one group of citizens than for all others to seek aid from the government is itself a denial of equal protection of the laws in the most literal sense.”

David Dinielli

David Dinielli

As for the First Amendment, “opening and operating a gay cafe and sports bar in Shannon is imbued with elements of expressive communication,” the lawsuit says. “In opening and maintaining the bar, Newton intends to convey a particularized message: it is okay to be openly gay, and LGBT people are due an equal and respected place in the community.”

The language used at the meeting made it clear why her permit was denied: attendants asked her how she could call herself a Christian, and whether she would let her daughter go into “a bar like that.”

After the meeting, Newton says she received late-night anonymous calls telling her “You’re never gonna open that gay bar here; why don’t you just leave!

“No one used the word lesbian in the public meeting but every one of the questions was laced with suspicion, fear and distrust,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is handling the lawsuit, on Huffpo Live.


Equal Protection Denied

Posters on a local message board argued that the denial of permit had nothing to do with the fact that Newton wanted to open a gay bar, only that she wanted to open a bar, period, claiming that bars are connected with drug dealing, drunk driving and organized crime.

LGBT: the New Civil Rights Movement logoThe lawsuit, however, refutes that theory, pointing out that the town had recently given a permit to a non-gay bar, while over the same period of time denying three others to entrepreneurs who wanted to provide a place for the LGBT community.

“There have been other applications to operate gay bars and gay establishments within the town that also have been denied,” Dinielli said. “At least one application to operate a straight bar has been approved.”

The attorney pointed out the enormous advances that LGBT civil rights have made in recent years, including two landmark Supreme Court cases this summer which resulted in marriage equality coming to both California and the federal government.

“Our job is to make certain the growth and benefits of those sorts of strides are enjoyed by all people in America,” said Dinielli, “including here in rural Mississippi.”

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