Arkansas’ Civil War Over Religious Freedom
The Natural State’s religious freedom law has split families—including the governor’s—as well as pitted politicians against the business community.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For nearly 30 years, Capi Peck has owned Trio’s, a hip restaurant and Little Rock tradition.
Peck comes from a family of restaurant owners, including her grandfather who owned a famous Little Rock hotel, which hosted celebrities and presidents. She grew up learning that hospitality is key in that business. That’s why she is a leading voice, along with many other business owners, chefs and CEOs, in the fight against Arkansas’s Religious Freedom Act, which Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson sent back to the legislature on Wednesday to make changes so the bill mirrors federal law.
“Local independent restaurants all realized early on that we create hospitality for everyone,” Peck said. “We serve and treat everyone whether they are our employees or customers like they are guests in our home. This bill strikes at the very nerve of what our business is about.”
This week, Leo’s Greek Castle, a restaurant in Little Rock’s artsy Hillcrest neighborhood, posted on their Facebook page: “If House Bill 1228 isn’t vetoed, we will exercise our newfound right to refuse service to bigots, homophobes, and racists.”
Dave and Ray’s Downtown Diner near the state capitol posted a sign in its restaurant that quoted Mark 12:31: “Love thy neighbor as thyself…” and added, “We do not discriminate. All are welcome!”
The controversy around the bill, which is similar to Indiana’s, has left many Arkansans exasperated and angry, and some have called it a modern-day Civil War. As Hutchinson said in his news conference on Wednesday, “It has divided families and there is clearly a generational gap. My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill. It shows that there is a generational difference on these opinions.”
His nephew, Jeremy Hutchinson, a Republican state senator and the governor’s nephew, voted against the bill last week. He was the only Republican in the Senate to do so.
Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Arkansas Poll director, said that Hutchinson is right.
“This is definitely generational,” Parry said. “Data in Arkansas look much like nationwide samples: the younger people are, the more supportive they are of gay rights.”
Still, regardless of a generational shift, in the Bible Belt, homosexuality can have major consequences.
“Arkansas LGBTQ youth face a multitude of risks, from hostile home environments to schools where the bully is often school personnel,” said Kat Crisp, interim director of the Center for Artistic Revolution, the state’s oldest LGBTQ-centric organization and the only drop-in center for LGBTQ youth. “The bullying that LGBTQ youth endure does not stop when they graduate from high school, as they go out into a world where it is legal to refuse to employ and fire them, refuse housing and access to public accommodations. A law like HB1228 emboldens those who would like to use their religious preferences to discriminate against LGBTQ Arkansans.”
Harold Hughes, a gay activist, said he has been told that he is going to hell because he has lobbied for LGBTQ people to be included in church. He said just a couple of years ago activists had to assist a lesbian couple after they were pulled over for a routine traffic stop. One woman was jailed on “a trumped-up, resisting-arrest charge,” Hughes said.
“The police housed her with male prisoners,” he said.
Joining the small-business rebellion in urban Little Rock, corporations such as Acxiom and Walmart, chambers of commerce and mayors have also urged Hutchinson to consider the possible economic fallout from such a bill. Numerous protests in recent days throughout the state have called on Hutchinson to veto the bill.
However, in Arkansas, it only takes a simple majority in both legislative chambers to override the veto. Both are controlled by Republicans. It is unlikely that legislators from Hutchinson’s own party would have voted to override him, but anything is possible, said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College.
“In Arkansas, the veto power is formally a very weak one with only a simple majority of each house needed to overturn it,” Barth said. “However, Arkansas governors in the modern era have rarely been overturned by legislatures controlled by their party.”
Several Republican legislators attended Hutchinson’s news conference on Wednesday. Barth said that’s a good sign toward an amended bill.
“That’s why the visibility of the legislative leaders this morning was so important as the governor attempts to develop a legislative fix,” Barth said.
That fix, however, has a long way to go. A vote to recall the bill must pass both legislative chambers. If a recall fails, Hutchinson would have five days to veto it. If he does nothing, it will become law. If he vetoes it, the legislature has 30 days to override the veto, and that could happen when the legislature returns for one day in May to tidy up loose ends. The legislature could adjourn this week.
While some Democrats praised Hutchinson on Wednesday for seeking balance, others have little trust in him.
“Governor Hutchinson has shown a lack of trust with Arkansans when it comes to this bill,” Candace Martin, executive director of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said. “First, he said he would sign it into law and that it didn’t promote discrimination, even though it did. Now, he’s asked for clarification with amendments but didn’t specify what amendments he would like to see made. His lack of courage on this bill has given Arkansas families and business leaders reason to doubt his leadership when it comes to laws that promote discrimination.”
Activists aren’t giving up. Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign and a native Arkansan, spoke on the capitol steps after Hutchinson’s press conference.
“We have to double down on our efforts and hold them accountable. … You have to continue to speak out,” Griffin told hundreds of people who attended the afternoon event. “At the end of the day we will win this battle, but it is a long road ahead.”