Gov. Hutchinson Asks Legislators To Recall 'Religious Freedom' Bill

Apr 1, 2015

The national attention on "religious freedom" laws shifted from Indiana to Arkansas on Wednesday.

Arkansas received a heavy backlash from gay-rights groups and the business community with its bill that some say would allow discrimination of gay people. HB 1228 would let companies deny service to anyone if it conflicts with religious beliefs.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson had been saying as recently as last week that he would support the bill as it was written, but on Wednesday asked lawmakers to recall the legislation and make modifications.

"The bill that is on my desk at the present time does not precisely mirror the federal law," Hutchinson said. That law was passed by Congress in 1993 and, Hutchinson noted, has been vetted by the courts.

He says he was concerned by the response from the business community, including major Arkansas-based companies like Walmart, who said it would present a bad image for the state.

"My responsibility is to speak out on my own convictions and to do what I can as governor to make sure this bill reflects the values of the people of Arkansas, protects those of religious conscience but also minimizes the chance of discrimination in the workplace and in the public environment," Hutchinson said.

Hundreds of demonstrators have been at the state Capitol in recent days, calling on the governor to veto the legislation.

Speaking to reporters outside the governor's conference room, Tippi McCullough with the Stonewall Democratic Caucus asked Hutchinson to "Remove the doubt of discrimination, remove the doubt of economic uncertainty and revive the spirit of southern hospitality in Arkansas," she said to applause. "You have the power to right this wrong by issuing this executive order."

Republican legislative leaders say they’re willing to work with the governor and consider changes to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Senate President Jonathan Dismang insists the bill doesn’t target anyone.

"I’ve not spoken to a (legislative) member that wants RFRA, even this state version, to be something that allows for discrimination. I would challenge you to find any member that wants to utilize this law to allow for discrimination."

But Dismang said it would be premature to say whether there is support for the proposed changes.

The Little Rock Chamber of Commerce was among those calling for a veto of the bill. In a written statement, the organization said:

The Little Rock Regional Chamber commends Governor Hutchinson for his leadership and we urge the Arkansas Legislature to support the Governor’s effort to protect religious freedoms while also ensuring an open and fair workplace as well as an equitable business environment for all Arkansans.

UPDATE: The Arkansas Senate met into the evening Wednesday, passing two bills that will allow the religious-objections proposal to mirror the federal law. Those bills are expected to be taken up Thursday by the House.