So a few weeks ago I wrote about small town liquor laws in Mississippi, and now it looks like my home state is calling my name again! Liberty and economic growth being sacrificed for morality?—I’m on it! This time, we’re moving about two hours to the north to Shannon, MS.

In 2006, Kevin Smith picked Shannon to feature in his documentary Small Town Gay Bar, where he features—you guessed it—gay bars in rural southern communities. Shannon, however, must have decided that being friendly to gay people is just way too mainstream, because the town is making headlines again for refusing to grant a license for a gay bar.

PJ Newton, a Mississippi native, owned and operated the bar featured in Small Town Gay Bar. An open lesbian, Newton operated the bar from 1994 – 1998 until she sold it and moved to Memphis, MS. However, after “numerous gays and lesbians in northeast Mississippi said they wanted a place where they could feel comfortable and unwind without feeling threatened,” Newton decided to reopen the bar and re-christen it “O’Hara’s.”

No dice. The town aldermen rejected Newton’s business license application four-to-one. Now, Newton and the Southern Poverty Law Center are suing the town of Shannon, demanding equal protection of the law for Shannon and retribution for denying her right to free speech.

Okay, so maybe Shannon honestly just doesn’t want another bar in their town. But let’s face facts here: Shannon needs almost any business it can get. According to the Huffington Post, Shannon’s economy is as dead as the few businesses that dot the main stretch of highway. Citizens should welcome any business bringing in patrons, particularly from other towns. Interestingly, the town website says, “[W]e are poised for growth.” Apparently, though, Shannon isn’t ready for growth if it is gay growth. The city has rejected 3 proposals to open gay bars since the last one closed and rejected a proposal to open a LGBT community center. It did, however, approve a “straight” bar to open in town.

These are the problems that liberty faces when governments can say “yea” or “nay” to something as integral to economic freedom as opening an business. This denial of a business license to an interested citizen simply due to her lifestyle and targeted clientele does not even touch larger debates over government regulation. In this case, the government isn’t even letting the business exist in the first place, much less attempting to regulate it.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT purchasing power is close to 790 million dollars. In the deep South where the LGBT community is sparse, gay bars attract people from far and wide to spend money in your town. Shannon, how can you not want a piece of that rainbow money pie? You need tax dollars. You need growth. You need O’Hara’s.

If you’re interested, concerned citizens have started a petition aimed at the town of Shannon to ask them to allow all citizens to open businesses regardless of their sexual orientation. Let’s hope someone can talk some sense into these folks.

A copy of the complaint filed by the SPLC and Newton is available online for all interested.

Image courtesy of Reuters

  • Right on the money, Maddie. Town licensing is BS, but if they have licensing laws, they should dispurse permits without ostracizing any one group of people.

  • Noah

    Nice article, Maddie. Keep it up! I agree that a statist solution is necessary for enforcing a positive right to non-discrimination. I wonder whether your support for this state action lies more in your support of gay rights than in support of liberty.

    One could argue, though, that Newton’s approach for redress is essentially a big government solution that undermines the liberty for which she advocates. Neutral to the content of the claims, can you explain how Newton is justified in using a higher state power to coerce a lower state power, but the lower state power is unjustified in using its power to coerce individuals? If not, and content bias is the basis of your claim, then I don’t see how liberty is the essential issue–it is instead persuasive window-dressing.

    • Madeline Gootman

      Hi Noah, I’m glad you enjoy the article.

      As for your concerns about my “true” intent behind the article, I can’t really give you an answer on the dichotomy that you presented. My beliefs on gay rights issues and my beliefs about liberty inform one another. I cannot separate them.

      I believe that personal freedoms are the most important and the most inherent. The purpose of the courts is to make sure that those freedoms are enjoyed under the protections of the constitution against mass democracy (also known as mob rule) that can sometimes attempt to deprive others of fundamental liberties.

      As for your window dressing comment, I think liberty issues can be found at the core of most rights issues and events. So I don’t think I have to “dress up” my position to prove my liberty cred; I think the issue in this case did it on its own.

      Thanks for reading 🙂