Defying Critics, Arkansas Lawmakers Pass Religious Freedom Bill

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson

Despite intensifying criticism from business leaders both within and outside of Arkansas, the state legislature on Tuesday passed its version of a measure billed as a religious freedom law, joining Indiana in a swirl of controversy that shows little sign of calming.

The Arkansas bill, passed when the General Assembly concurred on three amendments from the State Senate, now goes to the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, who expressed reservations about an earlier bill but more recently said he would sign the measure if it “reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states.” The Arkansas Senate passed the measure last week.

While there were several attempts up until the last minute to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar discrimination of gays and lesbians, a measure that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana pledged to push through his Legislature, the sponsors of the bill in the Arkansas General Assembly rejected such moves.

”If you start shaving out exemptions in laws, next thing you know, you’ll gut the law because everyone will want an exemption,” said State Senator Bart Hester, an Arkansas Republican and one of the bill’s lead supporters.

The attention turns to Governor Hutchinson, a moderate Republican who ran on a jobs platform and managed to extend a tailored form of Medicaid expansion in this Republican-controlled state.

Earlier in Indiana, Mr. Pence said that he wanted the state’s measure changed by week’s end, even as he stepped up a vigorous defense of the law, rejecting the argument that it would allow business to deny services to gays and lesbians.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone,” Mr. Pence, a Republican, said at a news conference in Indianapolis.

He acknowledged that the law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, had become a threat to Indiana’s reputation and economy, with companies and organizations signaling that they would avoid the state in response to it. Mr. Pence said he had been on the phone with business leaders from around the country, adding, “We want to make it clear that Indiana’s open for business.”

But the governor, clearly exasperated and sighing audibly in response to questions, seemed concerned mostly with defending the law and the intent behind it, saying, “We’ve got a perception problem,” not one of substance. He referred to “gross mischaracterizations,” “reckless reporting by some in the media,” “completely false and baseless” accounts of the law, and “the smear that’s been leveled against this law and against the people of Indiana.”

Like the Republican legislative leaders who said on Monday that they intended to clarify the law, the governor said he could not say what form that clarification might take. “The language is still being worked out,” he said.

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SOURCE: CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
The New York Times

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