Despite Objections, Arkansas House Gives Final Approval To Religious-Freedom Bill

Mar 31, 2015

On a day when renewed opposition from the state’s business community implored Gov. Asa Hutchinson to stop HB 1228, a bill dubbed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” the Arkansas House passed three amendments to the measure that sealed the bill’s fate for the governor’s desk.

Hutchinson has said on previous occasions he will sign the controversial legislation.

This weekend he said, “As I previously stated, I will sign this bill as amended. This bill is designed to protect the religious freedoms of all Arkansans. It’s no different than legislation that has passed in 20 other states, from Illinois to Connecticut. Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy.”

A spokesman for the governor said late Tuesday that Hutchinson would not have additional comment today, but would speak on the issue on Wednesday.

HB 1228 states that, “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the substantial burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the substantial burden to the person’s exercise of religion in this particular instance is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Thirty-one states have similar laws or have interpreted their constitutions to have similar meanings to the measure.

HOUSE DEBATE

The House passed the legislation’s amendments with 67-68 votes in support and 19-21 votes in opposition.

Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, made a motion to have the bill reconsidered in the House Judiciary Committee, citing “several technical legal issues” related to the bill.

Bennett told the House she thought it would be difficult for a court to interpret the bill and asked the Bureau of Legislative Research to put together a bill similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

However, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, told the House that “none of what she has found has occurred.” Ballinger also said the bill mirrors “RFRA as far as the law allows.”

Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, criticized the amendments saying one of them failed to include discrimination as part of the bill, saying the language in the bill was broad.
Tucker then asked that the bill head back to committee.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, told Tucker that amending the bill again, especially a Senate amendment, would require Senate approval and would be “out of the question at this time.”

The re-referral question failed by a 62-26 margin.

As the political debate continued, it became more contentious.

Rep. Eddie Armstrong, D-North Little Rock, spoke about the economic impact and what he described as using “religion as a sword” to discriminate.

Several lawmakers, including Reps. Nate Bell, R-Mena and Justin Harris, R-West Fork, requested a point of order as they objected to the comments. They also asked Gillam to keep the debate on track.

Ballinger said he was “really, really sorry” that the debate turned sour especially in the final days of the session.

“I am not a mean person,” Ballinger told the House before the final votes occurred.

BUSINESS OBJECTIONS

Early Tuesday, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce became the latest in leadership to call for a halt to the bill, a day after the CEO of Acxiom, one of the largest tech firms in the state said it should be stopped. Wal-Mart has also objected to the bill.

A statement from the Little Rock Chamber read:

As the principal business organization responsible for fostering the economic growth and development of the Little Rock Region, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce supports an open and fair workplace and equitable business environment for all. While we believe that HB 1228 seeks to protect the religious freedoms of all Arkansans, it can be interpreted to provide religious protection for Arkansans who choose to discriminate against other Arkansans. This is bad for business and bad for Arkansas. Unless and until this issue is clarified by amendment in HB 1228, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is against the bill.

Gretchen Hall, CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, also weighed in.

"Tourism is one of Arkansas’s largest economic generating industries. As the destination marketing organization for the capital city of Arkansas, the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau (LRCVB) is dedicated to professionalism without regard to political affiliation, religious beliefs, race or sexual orientation. The LRCVB does not discriminate and strives to provide great service to ALL visitors alike,” said Hall in an effort to mitigate any fallout from the legislation.

Later in the day, Hall produced a more forceful statement calling on Hutchinson to veto the measure.

“With the controversy surrounding Indiana’s passage of its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as CEO of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, I would respectfully ask that you veto Arkansas HB 1228. I feel certain it will have an adverse effect on travel and tourism, Arkansas’ second largest economic industry,” Hall said, specifically noting that potential sporting events may view the law negatively.

Grant Tennille, former executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, distributed an email that said the needed “to welcome anyone who wants to join us and work hard to build Arkansas.”

“As we enter the final days of the legislative session, Arkansas finds itself, once again on the wrong side of history, using the power of government to enforce discrimination and division based on religion. This time, the mob’s target is the LGBT community; but the pose, the sentiment and the verbiage are unmistakeable. This is the same fight that has played out across the whole of human history. It’s the fight against the threat of the ‘other,’ the different,” said Tennille, who has previously spoken in favor of gay rights as a tool to recruit more companies to Arkansas.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce issued a more neutral statement, but one filled with warning.

Arkansas is a state filled with accepting, hospitable people and forward-thinking businesses. The current controversy surrounding HB 1228 has caused some across the country, and within our state, to question this reality. As the statewide voice of business, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/Associated Industries of Arkansas urges Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas Legislature to take timely and proactive steps to ensure that Arkansas maintains its rightful and hard-earned reputation as a business-friendly place where success is an opportunity available to all. We urge Legislative leaders to pause and carefully consider any and all avenues available to prevent the mischaracterization of Arkansas’s people and their attitudes towards others. We are ready and willing to do all we can to assist in this serious effort.