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Arkansas governor says his state’s ‘religious freedom’ bill needs to be fixed

Asa Hutchinson won't be joining Indiana's governor in the penalty box


Dell Cameron


Posted on Apr 1, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 4:26 am CDT

By refusing to sign a “religious freedom” bill that critics said would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson avoided wrapping his hand around a political firecracker.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence claimed to have been blindsided by a colossal public backlash last week after signing his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). At a press conference on Tuesday, he was forced to make an about-face, requesting that the Indiana state legislature add language to the bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Apparently unfazed by the controversy, Arkansas’ legislature passed a similar bill on Tuesday. It arrived on Hutchinson’s desk, but the first-term governor said at a Wednesday press conference that he had no plans to sign it.

Instead, Hutchinson is asking lawmakers to revise the language so that it directly mirrors the federal RFRA, which Pres. Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.

Pence has maintained all along that his state’s RFRA does, in fact, mirror the federal version. There are several key differences, however, the most notable being that the state law explicitly grants corporations a legal defense in suits brought by individuals. A restaurant could, for example, cite the Indiana law in a case brought by a gay couple whom it refused to serve. The federal RFRA does not cover for-profit businesses and only applies to cases where the government is also a party.

Arkansas’ law also shields corporations if their owners have strong religious convictions. Hutchinson said he wanted Arkansas “to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance.”

The governor’s rejection of the bill in its present form follows major pressure from the private sector, including Walmart, the state’s largest employer. Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, Ark., also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill, sending him a letter expressing concern about the “negative impact” the law might have on the state’s image.

If the legislature chooses to ignore Hutchinson’s request, the governor said, he would considering using an executive order to bar discrimination among the state’s workforce to address “competing constitutional obligations.”

“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

The governor’s son, union organizer Seth Hutchinson, was thrust into the spotlight on Wednesday after he signed a petition asking his father to veto the bill. The younger Hutchinson gave his father permission to disclose his opposition. In an email, he told the governor that the law could do damage to Arkansas’ reputation.

“I did not sway my dad,” he told the New York Times. “I think my dad is rethinking this because of the pressure that’s coming at him from all sides.”

Photo via Adam Bartlett/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 1, 2015, 5:20 pm CDT