By J.B. Clark
ABERDEEN – The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed suit in U.S. District Court challenging the town of Shannon’s denial of a license to a woman who wants to open a gay-oriented bar.
The suit claims P.J. Newton was unjustly denied a business license for a bar that would cater to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community of Northeast Mississippi.
The suit was filed following a June 4 decision in which the Shannon Board of Aldermen voted 4-1 to deny the special exception license needed for Newton to open the bar.
City Attorney Gary Carnathan said at the time the denial was based on concerns of necessity for general welfare, traffic congestion and public need due to another bar being across the street. However, the Montogmery, Ala.-based SPLC became involved on Newton’s behalf when the permit was denied.
“It is important to show that you can’t violate people’s rights and freedom,” Newton said. “Folks in the LGBT community from small towns have to drive a long ways to a city where they can find a place to be themselves and we need something like this.”
She operated the bar, O’Haras, in Shannon from 1994 until 1998 when she moved to Memphis. The bar operated under the name Rumors after Newton left.
She has said she wanted to reopen because the bar provided a safe place for the LGBT community and said she was asked by community members to return. She leased the space in May and began making improvements.
The civil rights suit alleges the Shannon aldermen denied Newton’s license because the business would cater to the LGBT community and not because of a failure to meet criteria for operating a business in the town.
Repeated late-night phone calls to Newton saying she would never be able to open the bar and suggesting she leave town are cited in the suit. Newton’s attorneys are seeking an award of damages, an injunction allowing her to open the business and any attorney fees and costs.
“It’s important, obviously, to P.J. personally but it’s also important for her and us to show the country that everyone deserves to be treated equally, whether that’s in New York, San Francisco or rural Mississippi,” said David Dinielli, deputy legal director for SPLC.
Carnathan, Shannon’s attorney, said he has yet to receive notice of the suit and could not comment.