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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Arkansas Gov. Hutchinson asks for changes to religious freedom bill

By Emma Margolin

Following intense criticism from businesses, politicians and even his own son, Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson reversed course Wednesday and said that he would not approve the religious freedom measure currently awaiting his signature unless lawmakers changed it to directly mirror a federal version. The governor had previously said he would sign the legislation.
“The bill that is on my desk at the present time does not precisely mirror the federal law in a couple of ways,” Hutchinson told reporters gathered at the State Capitol in Little Rock. One particular difference, he said, is that the current version allows “the First Amendment to be asserted in the private litigation between parties.”
NEWSNATION WITH TAMRON HALL, 4/1/15, 11:38 AM ET

Arkansas Gov. says 'changes need to be made' to state's religious freedom bill

Legal experts say the private parties provision is particularly problematic in that it allows individuals (defined very broadly in this case) to use their religious beliefs as a defense in discrimination lawsuits. Opponents say it could embolden businesses to deny services to same-sex couples, for example, or to any other person with whom the business owners claim to have a religious objection.
The same provision exists in Indiana’s controversial religious freedom law, potentially upping the pressure on that state’s Republican Gov. Mike Pence to call for similar changes. But Kara Brook, Pence’s press secretary, said the governor would not be issuing a statement in reaction to Hutchinson’s decision, NBC’s Jennifer Roller reported.
Hutchinson said he had asked leaders in the general assembly to either recall the bill so that it could be amended, or pass additional changes so that the measure more closely resembles the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Hutchinson cited the criticism he has received, saying that even his son signed a petition asking him to veto the bill. 
“My son, Seth, signed the petition asking me, dad, the governor, to veto this bill,” Hutchinson said. “And it shows that there’s a generational difference of opinion on these issues.”
The governor also went further and said that he was considering an executive order to ensure protection against discrimination in the workplace for state government employees.
Arkansas’ Republican-controlled legislature gave final approval Tuesday to an Indiana-style Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics warn could sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians.
Arkansas’ largest employer, Wal-Mart, has urged Hutchinson to veto the measure. “Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits of diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve,” CEO Doug McMillon said in a statement posted on Twitter. “It all starts with our core basic belief of respect for the individual. Today’s passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold. For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to formally announce her campaign for president this month, also urged Hutchinson to veto the bill.

Other business leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is openly gay, have publicly condemned the legislation.
Earlier this year, Arkansas passed another controversial measure barring cities and counties from enacting nondiscrimination protections that exceed the state’s. Arkansas does not bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, so the measure effectively nullified LGBT protections that existed at the local level. That measure became law without Hutchinson’s signature.
In an effort to redress the negative consequences of that law, LGBT advocates put forth a ballot proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s existing civil rights act. Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, approved the wording of that measure Tuesday, clearing the way for supporters to gather signatures. If they can get 68,000 registered voters to sign on, the proposal will be added to next year’s ballot.
“That debate will continue and ultimately be determined by people of this state either through their legislative body, or through the vote of the people,” Hutchinson said of the effort to add LGBT protections to the state’s civil rights law. “This conversation does not end.”

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