Arkansas Lawmakers Rush To Pass New Religious Freedom Bill

Apr 2, 2015

Lawmakers discuss amendments to two bills to create a new version of the Conscience Protection Act.
Credit Brian Chilson / Arkansas Times

The Arkansas Senate approved two shell bills Wednesday night in hopes one could be used to pass a last-minute religious freedom act that would align with a federal law passed in 1993. Thursday is set as the last day of the session.

Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, of Northwest Arkansas, the original bill's sponsor, said late Wednesday he has accepted the need for compromise.

"We all have experienced, you know, a lot of pressure, and frankly the climate has changed, and so if we can do something that makes it where we're still protecting our citizens and yet kind of clearing the air and making it where people aren't feeling like they're getting trampled on, I think that's what we need to do," said Ballinger.

Local protestors and area businesses, including Bentonville-based Walmart, expressed concern this week  HB1228 would lead to discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Amid growing pressure, Governor Asa Hutchinson called for a new version of the state’s so-called 'Conscience Protection Act,' Wednesday to mirror the language of the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

About 20 state-level RFRA laws were passed as a response to a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that limited an existing RFRA to the federal level. A similar law in Indiana has garnered national scrutiny and boycotts. 

Arkansas Human Rights Campaign director Kendra Johnson said she would have preferred an outright veto of the act from the governor, but is hopeful the change in its final form will include language closer to the federal act.

"It remains to be seen what the intention behind these two new bills are, so it's a little too early to comment on the substance of the bills. We have to see how they move through the Judiciary [Thursday] and whether there will be further amendments, " she said.

"I think the important thing to remember is HB1228 is still sitting on his desk, it has not been vetoed or referred to any of the houses," added Johnson.

Legal experts have said Arkansas's HB1228 goes beyond the federal RFRA law passed by other states, because it gives private businesses legal standing in religious conscience matters being weighed against civil rights and contains other language granting legal avenues for discrimination by public officials and business owners.

Several members of the Senate Wednesday night expressed dismay that in their haste to find bills to revise, lawmakers amended Republican State Senator Gary Stubblefield’s bill without his approval.

Lawmakers have vowed not to go ahead with the change using his bill Thursday without Stubblefield's permission. HB1228 remains on the governor’s desk.