Arkansas religious freedom law returns to legislators for amendment

by Vanessa Garcia Rodriguez, |
Gov. Asa Hutchison asked Arkansas legislators to revise the religious freedom bill it had passed to more reflect the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. | CNN/screen capture

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Christian Examiner) -- Arkansas lawmakers passed a religious freedom law Tuesday similar to the Indiana measure which sparked nationwide criticism and led several businesses to threaten to boycott the Hoosier state last week. But by Wednesday, after pressure from some business interests as well as famliy, Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked legislators to pass an additional measure that better resembled the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial," the Associated Press reported Gov. Hutchinson said. "But these are not ordinary times."

Hutchinson initially stated he would pass the bill if it reached him "in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states," he said in a statement Monday. However his own son as well as WalMart, headquartered in Arkansas, asked him to vetoe the bill and ultimately the governor asked legislators to make the law more consistent with federal law.

"What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is, one, we get the right balance. And secondly, we make sure that we communicate we're not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

In an initial March 31 statement, released on the company's website urging the governor to veto the bill, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said the legislation threatened "to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas."

Following the news of the governor's request to lawmakers, McMillon made a follow up statement April 1 that commended Hutchinson and legislators for reconsidering the bill.

"We clearly support the importance of religious freedom and encourage the legislature to make certain any legislation does not encourage discrimination."

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a RFRA law into effect last week. Following the nationwide uproar calling for the law to be revised, Pence asked legislators to create follow-up legislation that addressed concerns that businesses would be allowed to discriminate based on sexual identity and orientation.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday night that the Arkansas Senate had approved an updated version of the bill by a 26 to 0 vote. If Hutchinson signs the revised legislation, Arkansas will become the 21st state to adopt a Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The bill's sponsor Rep. Bob Ballinger (R) called changes to his bill a good opportunity. "I feel like it protects the citizens of the state of Arkansas that they'll be able to believe what they want to believe without government interference," he said.

The revised legislation was reportedly altered to include comment that businesses which deny services based on religious grounds could not use the law as part of their legal defense.