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On October 1, 2013, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced that it has filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Shannon, Mississippi, its mayor, and its aldermen for unjustly denying a business license to a gay bar. The difficulties faced by Pat Newton, who owns O'Hara's Bar, are typical of the barriers faced by openly gay people in rural America, especially in the rural South.
The complaint filed by SPLC describes how the town of Shannon and its leaders violated the rights of Newton to free speech and equal protection under the First and 14th Amendments when they denied her application for a business license to open a bar catering to the glbtq community.
The complaint asserts that "A town cannot deny a license because of hostility toward members of a particular group. It also lacks legitimate authority to deny a license to prevent someone like Newton from sending a positive message about LGBT people in Mississippi or to prevent her from providing them a safe space."
David Dinielli, SPLC deputy legal director, said, "The mayor and aldermen have no legitimate reason to deny Pat Newton the business license. 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."
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 and preparing for its opening.
When she sought to obtain 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.
The SPLC demanded that the board reconsider the vote at its next meeting on July 9 or face a federal lawsuit. In a letter to the board and mayor, the SPLC outlined the discriminatory behavior that is now the basis of this litigation.
On the evening of July 8, according to the lawsuit, the mayor and aldermen held a private meeting to discuss how to respond to the SPLC letter and ensure no alderman voted to reconsider the license. The next day, the board refused to reconsider the license. The mayor also refused a request to explain why the license was being denied.
"I simply want to open a business in Shannon that would mean so much to so many people," Newton said. "I was asked by people within this community to open this bar. I've met all of the town's requirements. It's sad that town officials have chosen to engage in ugly, discriminatory behavior that doesn't represent the town I know."
The need for a gay bar in Shannon, Mississippi can easily (and mistakenly) be dismissed by glbtq urbanites, who take for granted community centers, health clinics, entertainment centers, Gay-Straight Alliances, open and accepting churches, and other institutions catering to gay people. But as Malcolm Ingram's 2006 documentary Small Town Bar vividly illustrated, gay bars function as social and community centers and provide the only safe places for gay people to be open about their sexuality in the rural South.
The hostility and discrimination faced by Pat Newton are all too common throughout rural America. The SPLC lawsuit is crucially important.
In the video below, made in June 2013 after her application for a business license was denied, Newton explains what happened at the meeting and why she wants to open her bar.