The House Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 975 with a unanimous voice vote Thursday. The bill was amended to replace HB1228 as a Religious Freedom Restoration Act using language akin to that in the federal RFRA law passed in 1993.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson called for new language in the bill on Wednesday morning, following days of protests and public opposition from major Arkansas businesses including Bentonville-based Walmart.
Republican Representative Bob Ballinger spoke in favor of the new bill, while reiterating his preference for the version he authored, HB1228. Democratic Representative Camille Bennett, a vocal opponent of HB1228, said she also supports the changes to mimic federal legislation.
According to University of Arkansas constitutional law scholar John DiPippa, significant changes between HB1228 and SB975 include a lower standard of judicial scrutiny for religious beliefs, and a specification that there must be a governmental party in all cases. DiPippa spoke before the committee and recommended civil rights protections be added to the bill.
American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas director Rita Sklar spoke against the adoption of any state-level RFRA. Jackie Martin, a pianist and Anglican church member from Quitman, Arkansas, spoke in favor of the bill, saying if same-sex marriage becomes legal, she fears she will invite a lawsuit. She said she may stop performing if she will be penalized for following her conscience by refusing to perform for a gay couple.
The bill now heads to the full house for a vote.