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Religious Freedom Law: Arkansas Governor Wants Changes to Controversial Bill

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has said that he plans to sign the bill.
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/ Source: NBC News

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas asked state lawmakers on Wednesday to rewrite a controversial religious freedom bill that opponents said could be used to justify anti-gay discrimination.

The governor, under pressure from businesses including Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, said that he wanted the Arkansas bill to mirror a federal law on religious liberty signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

By Wednesday night, the Arkansas Senate had approved a new version of the bill by a 26-6 vote. The Senate moments later approved a separate, identical version of the compromise bill by a 26-0 vote.

A House panel was expected to take up the proposal Thursday, with supporters hoping to put it up for a final vote later that day. One of the lawmakers behind the original religious-objection bill said he supported the changes, even though he preferred the initial measure.

The proposed law would prohibit state government from infringing on religious beliefs without a compelling interest. But opponents have said that the bill, like a law passed in Indiana last week, could have given businesses more room to discriminate.

Both would give companies the same religious-liberty rights as individuals, and both would allow businesses to use the religion claim to defend against lawsuits brought by people — would-be customers, for example — and not just fight government action.

At a press conference in Little Rock, Hutchinson, a Republican, said that society is struggling with how to balance diversity with tradition and firmly held religious beliefs. He said that his own son, Seth, had urged him to veto the bill.

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” the governor said. “But these are not ordinary times.”

Seth Hutchinson put out a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying: "I am happy that my Dad is now calling on legislators to rework HB 1228. I had communicated with him my opposition to the bill, along with thousands of other Arkansans and concerned citizens around the country. I'm proud to have made a small contribution to the overall effort to stop discrimination against the LGBT community in Arkansas, the state that I love (Go hogs!)."

Also calling for a veto was Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady of Arkansas, who announced her opposition on Twitter moments before the governor took the podium.

Walmart, which has headquarters in Bentonville, had said that the Arkansas bill runs counter to its belief in “understanding and respecting differences and being inclusive of all people,” and “sends the wrong message about Arkansas.”

It commended Hutchinson’s decision to ask for changes.

Hutchinson’s counterpart in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence, also a Republican, endured a hail of criticism after he signed a religious freedom bill last week. Legal experts said that Indiana’s law also went further than the federal law.

The outcry in Indiana included the CEOs of Apple and other large companies, the governors of at least three other states.

Pence said on Tuesday that he wants language on his desk by the end of the week to clarify the law and spell out that businesses may not deny service to anyone.

At least 19 other states religious freedom laws.

Sexual orientation is not covered by anti-discrimination laws in Indiana and Arkansas. Pence said again on Tuesday that he does not support such a law. Hutchinson said there would be a debate in Arkansas on whether to change the law there.

The five Catholic bishops of Indiana said in a statement that “every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.” They also said that protecting religious freedom is crucial.

“We support efforts to uphold the God-given dignity of all the people of this state while safeguarding the rights of people of all faiths to practice their religion without undue burden from the government,” the bishops said.


— Erin McClam with The Associated Press