October 2, 2013 9:50:58 AM
JACKSON -- A woman is suing the leaders of a north Mississippi town, accusing them of conspiring to prevent her from opening a gay bar by denying an application for a business license.
Pat "PJ" Newton filed the federal lawsuit Tuesday against the mayor and several aldermen of Shannon, a town of about 1,700 in Lee County where Newton has been trying to open a cafe and bar called O'Hara's to cater to the gay community.
The 55-year-old Newton, who is a lesbian, is seeking monetary damages and an order to allow her to open the business as well as attorneys' fees and court costs.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing the Memphis, Tenn., woman in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen.
It says Shannon Mayor Ronnie Hallmark "led a conspiracy to deny Newton a business license" and solicited community opposition to the bar.
The mayor and aldermen did not immediately respond to a phone message left Tuesday at Shannon Town Hall. The lawsuit names six current or former members of the board of aldermen.
The lawsuit says Newton got a state business license and liquor permit and made expensive upgrades to the bar, but was denied a license under the city's zoning ordinance.
The application was denied in a 4-1 vote on June 4 with the stated reason being that the bar would present a public health and safety hazard, Southern Poverty Law Center lawyer David Dinielli said Tuesday in a phone interview.
"We believe that is an illegitimate reason and pretext for the real reason," Dinielli said. Dinielli believes the town leaders simply don't want a gay bar.
Newton said Tuesday in a phone interview that she first opened a gay bar called O'Hara's in the same location in Shannon in 1994 and operated it without problems until 1998, when she sold it to take on new business ventures.
The new owners continued to run a gay bar there called "Rumors" until 2010, according to the lawsuit. Rumors was profiled in a 2006 documentary called "Small Town Gay Bar" about the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the rural South.
The parcel of land is zoned as a general commercial district and requires establishments like churches, dog kennels and bars to get a "special exception," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the mayor told Newton that she had to appear before the aldermen on June 4 to present her plans, which she believed was a technicality to approval. Newton said she was met by a crowd of 30-40 people, including some who presented petitions opposing the bar.
Dinielli said the mayor encouraged at least one person to get signatures for the petitions.
"For over 30 minutes, Aldermen and citizens launched a series of hostile questions and comments directed at Newton," the lawsuit said. The application was denied.
Bryant Thompson, the lone alderman who had voted to approve the license, was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit because he "declined to move or vote to reconsider the denial" of the application.
Newton said she's struggling "a little bit" to pay the rent and utilities but she hopes the lawsuit will be successful and she can recoup her losses when the bar opens.
"Of course, I'm in it as long as it takes. I'm not going anywhere," she told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday.