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Battle between gay groups and Arkansas newspaper heats up

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas (Reuters) - A battle between gay rights groups and an Arkansas newspaper over an obituary is picking up steam after a near-truce fell apart.

After saying they would review their policy banning the inclusion of life partners in free obits, the Batesville Daily Guard's newspaper executives published an editorial defending the policy.

Now the protests are going forward, and the central figure in the controversy, the gay life partner of a man who died from spinal meningitis, is threatening legal action from a hospital bed.

"I want a hundred times more now than I did at the beginning of all of this, which was just to have my name listed," Terence James told Reuters on Monday. James has been diagnosed with the same illness that killed his partner, John Millican, on June 11.

Oscar Jones, the newspaper's attorney, told Reuters on Monday that the policy was still being reviewed and that it was "a process," not something they could do overnight.

"That's a process as opposed to just not a decision immediately," Jones said.

"I anticipate changes in the policy but I don't know what those will be yet."

Jones' mother, Pat Jones, is the newspaper's manager and operator. The newspaper has been in the family for 82 years.

Oscar Jones said the newspaper stood by the editorial, published in Friday's editions.

Last week, the newspaper came under fire from activist groups who accused its owners of discrimination after Millican's obituary ran without James' name listed as a survivor.

The disputing parties appeared to be close to an solution, but then the newspaper published an editorial saying James knew the paper's policy on obituaries and is now grandstanding.

The editorial, which ran directly across from an ad on the issue by the Human Rights Campaign, said the paper did not owe an apology to James, nor was it obligated to re-run the obituary. The editorial also said James had tried to list pets as children and was denied that, too.

"Listing pets as children is a direct slap in the face to grieving parents who have buried children, young or old," the editorial said. "This begs the question of exactly what motive Mr. James had..."

The newspaper has said its policy is not to publish the name of significant others, ex-spouses or life partners in free obituaries. Paid obituaries cost $85 and will include anything the survivors want to add. The newspaper contends James knew this when he submitted the obituary.

James disputed the editorial, which he called "unmitigated gall," and said he may investigate legal action. The funeral home has listed his name as a survivor on its website.

Randi Romo, a representative for Little Rock's Center for Artistic Revolution, a non-profit gay rights group, said it is organizing a community vigil in honor of James.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation plans a campaign against the newspaper this week.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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