LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ With the hiring of a state director for the first time in Arkansas, the Human Rights Campaign has highlighted how much of a battleground the state has become in the fight over equal rights for gays and lesbians.
So far, however, gay rights advocates have seen more victories in courtrooms than in voting booths or legislative chambers.
The nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group announced last week it had hired Kendra Johnson, a Little Rock native who has worked at several nonprofits, to be its first state director for Arkansas. The move comes as opponents of Arkansas' ban on gay marriage are fighting that prohibition, and on the heels of a legal victory this year that allowed the state to be the first in the South to allow same-sex unions, albeit briefly.
It's a shift for a state where voters a decade ago approved a gay marriage ban by a 3-1 margin, and where most Democrats in office have been unwilling to follow the national party on the issue.
The state director is part of the campaign's $8.5 million Project One America effort, which is focused on Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi.
``We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work, but we know this work must be led and implemented by real Arkansans, folks with deep roots in and commitment to communities all across this state,'' Project One Director Brad Clark said last week.
Johnson said she wants to use the position to make home state more welcoming for gays and lesbians.
``All Arkansans deserve to have the same opportunities and respect of the law as any other person,'' she said. ``At HRC Arkansas, we will work hard to ensure that every person has the chance to live comfortably and safely within their communities by changing hearts and minds, advancing enduring legal protections and building more inclusive spaces.''
The campaign is trying to go beyond the legal victories that gays and lesbians have seen in Arkansas, including a Pulaski County judge's decision to strike down the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The ruling, which has been suspended by the state Supreme Court while justices consider its appeal, led to more than 500 same-sex couples receiving marriage licenses. A separate lawsuit challenging the ban is pending before a federal judge.
The fight for same-sex marriage has fallen short on the political front, with a legislative panel voting to condemn Judge Chris Piazza's decision against the gay marriage ban. And the only statewide elected official to support same-sex marriage is Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, a term-limited Democrat who's not appearing on the ballot this fall and who says he'll still defend the ban in court.
Supporters of the gay marriage ban have cast the issue not as a civil rights issue, but as a judge trying to overrule the will of the voters.
``There is no branch of this government that's more important than the people,'' Republican Sen. Jason Rapert said in June as the Legislative Council approved his resolution urging the state Supreme Court to uphold the ban.
The focus instead for the HRC's new campaign in Arkansas is the workplace. The Project One campaign is focusing on the three southern states because the states don't have laws to protect people from being fired from a job or evicted from housing because of their sexual orientation.
Clark said that effort will include trying to obtain workplace protection ordinances passed at the local level, as well as encouraging policies among the state's major employers.
``Our work is going to center around that, as well as just starting a conversation with Arkansans about our lives,'' Clark said. ``I think that essentially where this comes, as people come to know LGBT folks as their friends and neighbors, that's really where hearts and minds are changing.''