LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV/AP) - Arkansas' top economic development official is supporting same-sex marriage and says that treating gay couples equally under the law could make the state a leader in the South on the issue and promote economic growth.
Arkansas Economic Development Commission Executive Director Grant Tennille joined the head of the Human Rights Campaign and other advocates at the state Capitol Monday to call for supporting same-sex marriage. Arkansas is one of 37 states that bans gay marriage.
Tennille said he believed Arkansas could be a leader on the issue and that treating same sex couples equally could help the state, particularly in attracting high-skilled jobs.
"I'm betting that inequality and the attitude of Arkansans toward people who are different in any way is a large reason why we lose some of our best and brightest," he added.
"I think it's a very positive sign that we have people who are in state government who are acknowledging that this does have economic impact," said University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law professor Terri Beiner, who has seen quality job candidates go elsewhere because of Arkansas' stance on gay rights. "Part of the theory is that when you allow people to have new ideas, and that includes forming relationships that are non-traditional, you attract all kinds of different-thinking kinds of people, and that's what generates new ideas and creative ideas that lead to increased economic activity."
"I think it's an issue for every employer in the state," said Dr. Jay Barth, a political professor at Hendrix College in Conway. He calls Tennille's statement a symbolic, but important, step in the right direction.
"I think it's particularly important that it's the Director of Economic Development because I think, increasingly, there's an awareness of the economic impact of being a place that is accepting and open to diversity," added Barth. "One of the key elements of a creative culture in any place is an openness to diversity and once you have an acceptance of that creative class that's what creates the kind of 21st century jobs that make a city a vibrant place to live."
Tennille's remarks came at a news conference where Human Rights Campaign announced 61 percent of young Arkansans support same-sex marriage, and 63 percent say no one should be fired for sexual orientation. The poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Target Point Consulting from June 26-30, 2013.
"Companies look for locations where all of their employees can be welcome. Where all of their employees become part of the community and where all of their employees will be treated equally," Tennille said.
"The Court's historic rulings point to the emergence of two Americas," said HRC President Chad Griffin. "In one America, LGBT people are achieving more equality under the law than ever before. In the other America - places like Arkansas - LGBT people are still struggling to gain equal protections and benefits. But we can draw hope from these new poll numbers - Arkansans by and large reject discrimination against their friends and loved ones; and the younger generation is fully on-board with marriage."
Gov. Mike Beebe, who appointed Tennille last year, said Tennille wasn't speaking on behalf of his administration. Beebe, a Democrat, said he still opposes legalizing gay marriage.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)