POLITICS

Arkansas Legislature Copies Indiana, Passes Controversial Religious Freedom Bill

03/31/2015 04:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Arkansas passed a religious freedom bill on Tuesday that is similar to an Indiana law that has faced national backlash for legalizing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The bill cleared the Arkansas Legislature and now heads to the governor's desk, where it is expected to be signed. Like the Indiana law, the Arkansas legislation allows a person who feels his or her exercise of religion has been “substantially burdened” to cite that argument as a claim or defense in a private lawsuit. The legislation also grants corporations the right to religious freedom. This language is not in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and critics say it could be used to override existing anti-discrimination protections.

"The Arkansas and Indiana bills are virtually identical in terms of language and intent,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign. “They place LGBT people, people of color, religious minorities, women and many more people at risk of discrimination.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) defended his state’s law on Tuesday, calling for a legislative fix that would clarify that the law does not allow businesses to discriminate. Earlier in the week, Arkansas lawmakers also tried to head off concerns about that state's bill, approving language that says “the General Assembly finds that it is a compelling governmental interest to comply with federal civil rights laws.”

However, according to Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, federal civil rights laws have no explicit protections for LGBT people, and this legislative finding -- while helpful -- is not part of the law. “If the Arkansas Legislature is serious about preventing discrimination, they need to write it into the actual code,” she said.

“We would like to see both Indiana and Arkansas adopt language clarifying that the state RFRA cannot be used to undermine federal, state or local non-discrimination laws," Warbelow said.

During Monday's committee hearing, some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill being inconsistent with federal and state RFRA laws when it comes to protecting civil rights. Some proposed a simple solution: adding a non-discrimination disclaimer to the legislation.

"It's not a philosophical debate with me at this point. I think we're going well beyond the other states," said state Rep. Camille Bennett (D), who ultimately voted against the bill.

But the bill's author, state Rep. Bob Ballinger (R), said its language was staying put, and that it would be too confusing to try to define what constitutes discrimination.

"If that means that you can force somebody who has deeply held religious beliefs to engage in some activity that violates their deeply held religious beliefs, and that the state has the right to force them into doing it, I can't say that I do agree with that," he said.

Arkansas is about to enter the same minefield that Indiana has been trapped in since Pence signed his religious freedom bill last week. In Indiana, major companies like Twitter and the NCAA, as well as celebrities like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Miley Cyrus, have spoken out against the law.

In Arkansas, both Walmart and Acxiom, a big data company, have spoken out against the legislation. The Democratic mayor of Little Rock also warned Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Tuesday that “any piece of legislation that is so divisive cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people.”

But Hutchinson appears unfazed by these concerns. Last week, he vowed that he would sign the legislation: “Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy,” he said in a statement.

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