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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Arkansas ready for final vote on religious ‘rights’ bill

 Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, holds copies of a bill she opposes at a meeting of the House Committee on Judiciary at the Arkansas state Capitol.  (Danny Johnston, AP)
Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, holds copies of a bill she opposes at a meeting of the House Committee on Judiciary at the Arkansas state Capitol.
(Danny Johnston, AP)

Opponents of an Arkansas “religious freedom” measure that they say will allow widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians filled the state Capitol on Monday to protest the bill as it neared a final vote.

The protests, however, showed no signs of slowing the momentum of the bill, endorsed by a House committee Monday, that prevents state and local governments from infringing upon someone’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” interest. Despite efforts to clarify a similar measure enacted in Indiana, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the lawmaker behind the proposal said they’re not seeking any more changes to Arkansas’ bill.

The House, which had supported an initial version of the bill, could take up the proposal as early as Tuesday afternoon.

Protesters held an early-morning rally outside the governor’s mansion, but the main event drew more than 500 people outside the entrance to the state House chamber Monday. Outside the committee room, protesters held signs that read “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease”, and chanted “Shame on You” at the sponsor of the measure.

“This is not nearly as exciting a law change as what I think a lot of people think it is,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville told the House Judiciary Committee before the vote. “However, what it does is it does create a situation where we can protect people’s religious practices, let people believe what they want to believe.”

If enacted, Arkansas would become the second state to adopt such a law change this year.

Indiana has been widely criticized by businesses and organizations since Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure into law last week. Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

Hutchinson last week said he’d sign the measure into law, and his office said Monday his position hadn’t changed. Hutchinson had expressed reservations about unintended consequences about an earlier version of the bill, but said changes have addressed those concerns.

“I have said if this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states then I will sign it, but I am pleased that the Legislature is continuing to look at ways to assure balance and fairness in the legislation,” Hutchinson said Monday in a statement.

A Hutchinson spokesman said the governor wasn’t actively seeking any more changes to the bill, and Ballinger said he didn’t expect any either. Time is running out for the Legislature to take up the proposal, with the session expected to wrap up Thursday.

“There’s not really any place to make any changes now,” Ballinger said. “If there are questions in two years we can fix it.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas’ anti-discrimination protections. Last month, Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson hopes to attract to the state, and Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend opposing Arkansas and Indiana’s measures. Little Rock-based data services company Acxiom on Monday also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill, saying it enables discrimination and hurts the state’s image.

“This bill is at direct odds with your position that ‘Arkansas is open for business,'” CEO Scott Howe and Executive Vice President Jerry C. Jones said in a letter to the governor.

The proposal advanced Monday on an 11-5 vote, with Republican Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers joining four Democrats to oppose it.

The protesters included Rita and Pam Jernigan, the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ gay marriage ban. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker struck down an amendment and state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but suspended her ruling while it’s on appeal.

“I believe that many people will want to flee the state and many people will want to avoid our state,” Rita Jernigan said. “I think it will hit us hard everywhere. I feel like we’re moving backwards rather than being a progressive state.”


Associated Press Writer Allen Reed contributed to this report.


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