LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Less than an hour after the Arkansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed an amended version of a controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed the bill into law.
In the face of national criticism and debate over the balance of religious freedom and the right not to be discriminated against, Hutchinson asked the legislature on Wednesday to amend the bill to more closely mirror the federal RFRA to show Arkansas “does not discriminate and understands tolerance.” By late Wednesday afternoon, the amendments had both Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.
“You have my thanks for your extra efforts for an Arkansas solution to a challenge that we face and I think what you’ve done in the last 24 hours is something that every Arkansan should be proud of,” Hutchinson said to legislators gathered at the bill signing.
“Our full focus has been on this effort, this is the most critical piece of the puzzle,” Hutchinson said. “...This debate goes on. The fact that it might not solve every problem for everyone probably means that it’s a good bill.”
Also on Thursday, Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which kicked off the latest round of controversy last week, was also updated when both houses of the state Legislature voted to amend the law to explicitly forbid discrimination based on “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” The Indianapolis Star reported. On Thursday evening, Governor Mike Pence signed the new bill.
Arkansas Republican legislators, like those in Indiana, crafted the original legislation to protect religious freedom. Such bills, which 20 states have, allow individuals to sue the government if they believe their First Amendment religious rights have been violated by not being allowed to refuse to engage in activities that may violate deeply held religious beliefs, like baking a cake for a gay wedding. Many critics say these bills are a push by conservatives to allow for straight-up discrimination against same-sex couples.
Those opposing the bill have asked Hutchinson for an executive order that explicitly prohibits discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity. Hutchinson said Thursday that is still an option.
The new, amended law in Arkansas now mirrors the 1993 federal RFRA law, and like that law, does not contains language that explicitly forbids discrimination against people based on sexual orientation. One Democratic legislator, Warwick Sabin, attempted to file an amendment that would have done so, but he said he didn’t have enough support for it to have passed.
Because Hutchinson asked for changes near the end of the legislative session, the deadline had passed for a new bill to be filed. To amend the bill, legislators took two other bills with similar titles, stripped the original text and wrote the needed amendments. One of the bills used had originally had been filed for the purpose to protect Arkansans from Sharia law.
While the new law is in line with the federal one, that’s not enough for the ACLU.
“As the drafters desired, this law is as close as a state could come to codifying the federal RFRA into state law,” the ACLU said in a statement. “Unlike the drafters, however, we do not think this solves all the problems posed by the original RFRA, for, like the 1993 federal law, this bill does not contain an express protection ensuring a continued fair balancing of civil and religious rights. Enacting a 1993 federal law does not put Arkansas’ law where it should be in 2015.”
“The line in the sand has been drawn,” Randi M. Romo, a LGBQT activist, said. “Although steadfastly claiming there was no ill will nor intent of discrimination in this bill’s original genesis, it is clear that the sponsors for it and other bills were designed to work together to try and stop the tide of equality long sought by LGBTQ Arkansans.”
U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) angered many in his home state when he said on Wednesday that gays who were opposing RFRA laws in Arkansas and Indiana needed “perspective.”
“I think it’s important we have a sense of perspective about our priorities,” Cotton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday afternoon. “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay. They’re currently imprisoning an American preacher for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in Iran. We should focus on the most important priorities that our country faces right now.”
Cotton’s office did not return a call from The Daily Beast.
And former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee added fuel to the growing debate when he said that gay activists won’t be happy until they have destroyed all churches.
Kathy Webb, a former member of the Arkansas legislature and now a Little Rock city director, hoped that a polite dialogue on LGBQT rights could begin in Arkansas after Hutchinson’s request for rewording.
“Yesterday was a very bipartisan effort,” Webb said. “We had a starting place from which to move forward.”
But, now Webb, who was the first openly LGBT person to run for and be elected to public office in the state, asked Cotton to meet with Arkansas LGBQT families and leaders after his “perspective” statement.
Webb said comments like Cotton’s destroy any progress that has been made over the last several weeks in the state. “Remarks like Senator Cotton’s destroy goodwill. They don’t appeal to my Republican friends and they only appeal to a small minority.”
Romo added that Cotton was “out of touch” with reality.
“Worse still are that many, including LGBTQ Arkansans, are assaulted verbally and physically,” she said. “Some members of the LGBTQ community have been murdered by their fellow countrymen; while others take their own lives to escape the unbearable pain of these affronts on their very existence. His remarks are painful, divisive, and insulting.”
H.L. Moody, co-host of the Big Gay Radio Show and chairman of the Pulaski County Democratic Party, said the pressure will stay on Hutchinson to do the right thing.
“Hutchinson has to sign that executive order and my camp won’t be happy until that is signed,” Moody said. “This executive order is the only thing they can give us right now.”