Arkansas lawmakers have given final approval to a religious freedom bill that has drawn sharp criticism from opponents who say it opens the door to state sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.
The House voted Tuesday to approve the measure, which prohibits the state and local governments from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” interest. The measure now heads to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will sign it into law.
If enacted, the move will make Arkansas the second state to enact such a law this year. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill last week, and 19 other states have comparable measures on the books.
Hundreds of protesters filled the Arkansas Capitol urging Hutchinson to veto the bill.
“This legislation doesn’t allow anybody to discriminate against anybody, not here,” State Rep. Bob Ballinger, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The bill does just the opposite. It focuses on the civil rights of people believing what they want to believe, and not letting the government interfere with that.”
Ballinger, an attorney who represents a district in northwestern Arkansas, said that he agrees with Pence in that “there needs to be some clarity in the perception of the legislation.”
“What my bill does is protect a person’s right to believe what they want to believe,” he said. “That should be the focus of this bill, without being muddied by a bunch of other things. As it sits right now, it’s not going to enable a person to discriminate.”
“It’s substantively different from other laws that are on the books in other states, and it’s right in line with Indiana’s,” Adam Talbot, a spokesman for the Human Rights Council, said Monday. “Indiana and Arkansas both grant ‘personhood’ to all corporations.”
Arkansas lawmakers approve religious liberty bill despite firestorm over Indiana law
The Arkansas bill, which has been criticized by Wal-Mart, other businesses and rights groups, has not yet become the focal point that the Indiana law has become. This latest bill was approved Tuesday in Little Rock despite a last-minute attempt to send it back to a legislative committee so that an anti-discrimination amendment could be added.
State Rep. Clark Tucker, a Democrat, spoke on the House floor in favor of adding such language.
“I think everyone in this room is aware that this bill has attracted a lot of attention,” he said. “I think every member of this body and the vast majority of the general public supports protecting religious liberty. I do believe it’s attracted a lot of public attention because it creates the perception that it affirmatively authorizes discrimination.”
Tucker said in his statement on the House floor he believed that the current bill “could create discriminatory effects.”
Still, the bill was approved and sent to Hutchinson, who said he intends to sign it.
“I have said if this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states then I will sign it, but I am pleased that the legislature is continuing to look at ways to assure balance and fairness in the legislation,” Hutchinson said in a statement Monday.