Economic Pressure Builds For Hutchinson To Veto Religious Freedom/LGBT Discrimination Bill

Mar 27, 2015

HRC Arkansas Director Kendra Johnson, HRC President Chad Griffin speaking at the Capitol next to an ad the organization is running.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

A number of high-profile business figures are calling on Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) to veto a bill supporters describe as a "religious freedom" measure that on Friday passed the Arkansas Senate. Opponents say it allows religious belief to be used as a defense for discriminating against LGBT people in housing, employment, and both public and private accommodations and services.

Apple CEO Tim Cook sent out this tweet:

It followed an open-letter by Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.

"...it is unconscionable to imagine that Yelp would create, maintain, or expand a significant business presence in any state that encouraged discrimination by businesses against our employees, or consumers at large. I encourage states that are considering passing laws like the one rejected by Arizona or adopted by Indiana to reconsider and abandon these discriminatory actions. (We’re looking at you, Arkansas.)"

Pressure from the tech sector on Friday followed an economic development announcement on Thursday by Hutchinson that was also hounded by those demanding a veto from the Republican governor.

Possible economic consequences of so-called “religious freedom” legislation produced by the Arkansas General Assembly this year served to dampen a development announcement by Governor Asa Hutchinson on Thursday.

“I’m delighted today to make the announcement that Mike Preston will be the next director of economic development,” said Hutchinson to the sound of applause.

The governor touted his appointment to the state’s top industry-recruitment post, to a roomful of onlookers. 

Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) naming Mike Preston (right) the Executive Director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

“Companies that he has lured to Florida include the Hertz Corporation, 700 jobs; Lumber One, 350 jobs; Navy Federal Credit Union, 5000 jobs.” 

Hutchinson noted Preston has worked for Florida’s equivalent of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for six years, in government relations.

“I like his experience working with the legislature, very similar to the major projects that we have in this state that have to go through the legislature,’ said Hutchinson.

But the attention of the room - and questions from reporters - turned from Preston’s capacity to attract industry, and projects like Big River Steel, to Arkansas’s reputation; recently a slew of bills have been derided by LGBT advocacy groups as sanctioning discrimination. It may have caught Preston off-guard, but he predicted no negative fallout.

“I’d have to go back and look. I’m not even familiar with, I haven’t been following the legislation that’s been going on here,” said Preston.

“But I feel like I’m in tune with what’s going on around the country as far as economic development and I haven’t seen any issues that anybody’s saying that something’s going to hurt Arkansas’s competiveness.”

If Arkansas is perceived as anti-gay because of laws passed by the Legislature, Preston said any industry-hesitation to locate in the state can be overcome.

“There’s going to be challenges that we face and you know, every state’s going to have it. You know, we work together as an economic development community to fight through anything that we need to.”

Preston said it’s an issue “every" state faces, although only 19 states have adopted laws similar to Republican Representative Bob Ballinger’s HB1228. Preston, and the state of Arkansas, will have to overcome a campaign to out Arkansas as a state that is not friendly to gay people.

Just minutes after Preston’s remarks, Chad Griffin – the founder of the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign – made an announcement of his own.

“HRC will be launching an advertisement campaign about this bill and about this governor’s decision in Silicon Valley as well as on Wall Street over the next days and weeks to come,” said Griffin.

Griffin, an Arkansas native, referred to the advertisement which in-part reads, “Arkansas: Closed for Business due to discrimination.”

“It will send a warning sign, a beacon to corporate America that Arkansas is no longer open for business.”

While Griffin and HRC negatively view Arkansas’s entry into laws that give a religious defense to a person that refuses to serve another, based upon an objection to something such as homosexuality, the governor sees it otherwise.

“If you look at how this has been interpreted in other states, that the courts have dealt with that in a fair manner. I think that’s the balance that we try to achieve, genuinely held religious convictions versus the concept that we’re a free society and we want to work to avoid discrimination,” said Hutchinson.

The HRC is calling on the governor to veto the bill, warning the eyes of the nation are upon him. The governor says if the bill advances as expected to his desk, he will sign in it.

“The 1228 is still working its way through. I think there’s even some more recent amendments but the last version I saw I would sign,” said Hutchinson.

The governor of Indiana signed a similar law this week and a $4 billion tech company announced it will stop investing in operations in the state. And in the midst of college basketball’s March Madness the NCAA is expressing concern about its operations in Indiana.

Arkansas-based WalMart is opposed; and so is Matthew Bell, the owner of the restaurant South on Main in Little Rock. Bell spoke with the HRC at the Capitol.

“I would just like to say that my restaurant is open to anyone and everyone and it makes me a little sad that I live in a state currently that I have to tell you that,” said Bell. “All restaurants all businesses, should be open to anyone and everyone.”