Defying Criticism, Arkansas Govt Passes Fundamentalist Bill

Postby rebeccaolsen » Tue Mar 31, 2015 4:58 pm

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/01/us/re ... .html?_r=0

Defying Criticism, Arkansas Legislature Passes Bill on Religious Freedom

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON and RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑAMARCH 31, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Despite intensifying criticism from business leaders both within and outside of Arkansas, the state legislature on Tuesday passed its version of a measure billed as a religious freedom law, joining Indiana in a swirl of controversy that shows little sign of calming.

The Arkansas bill, passed when the General Assembly concurred on three amendments from the State Senate, now goes to the state’s Republican governor, Asa Hutchinson, who expressed reservations about an earlier bill but more recently said he would sign the measure if it “reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states.” The Arkansas Senate passed the measure last week.
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Protesters turned out last week in Indianapolis against an Indiana measure that lets businesses refuse to serve same-sex couples.

While there were several attempts up until the last minute to add a clause to the bill that would explicitly bar discrimination of gays and lesbians, a measure that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana pledged to push through his Legislature, the sponsors of the bill in the Arkansas General Assembly rejected such moves.

”If you start shaving out exemptions in laws, next thing you know, you’ll gut the law because everyone will want an exemption,” said State Senator Bart Hester, an Arkansas Republican and one of the bill’s lead supporters.

The attention turns to Governor Hutchinson, a moderate Republican who ran on a jobs platform and managed to extend a tailored form of Medicaid expansion in this Republican-controlled state. One of the state’s biggest employers, Walmart, called on the governor to veto the bill.

Earlier in Indiana, Mr. Pence said that he wanted the state’s measure changed by week’s end, even as he stepped up a vigorous defense of the law, rejecting the argument that it would allow business to deny services to gays and lesbians.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone,” Mr. Pence, a Republican, said at a news conference in Indianapolis.

He acknowledged that the law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, had become a threat to Indiana’s reputation and economy, with companies and organizations signaling that they would avoid the state in response to it. Mr. Pence said he had been on the phone with business leaders from around the country, adding, “We want to make it clear that Indiana’s open for business.”

But the governor, clearly exasperated and sighing audibly in response to questions, seemed concerned mostly with defending the law and the intent behind it, saying, “We’ve got a perception problem,” not one of substance. He referred to “gross mischaracterizations,” “reckless reporting by some in the media,” “completely false and baseless” accounts of the law, and “the smear that’s been leveled against this law and against the people of Indiana.”

Like the Republican legislative leaders who said on Monday that they intended to clarify the law, the governor said he could not say what form that clarification might take. “The language is still being worked out,” he said.

The law has set off a firestorm, with both critics and some supporters saying it would allow businesses to deny service to lesbian and gay customers if doing so would offend their religious beliefs.

Days before the N.C.A.A. is to hold the men’s basketball Final Four in Indianapolis, the group’s president, Mark Emmert, said Tuesday that the new law “strikes at the core values of what higher education in America is all about.” The city’s mayor, Greg Ballard, a Republican, and the state Chamber of Commerce have called on lawmakers to change the statute.

Business resistance in both states continued to grow, with Gap and Levi Strauss joining Walmart, Apple, Yelp and other major corporations in expressing disapproval. On Monday, the chief executive of Acxiom, a marketing technology company based in Little Rock that employs nearly 1,600 statewide, urged the Arkansas governor to veto a bill that was “a deliberate vehicle for enabling discrimination.”

In urging Mr. Hutchinson to veto the legislation, the chief executive of Walmart, Doug McMillon, said that the bill “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

Angie’s List cited the Indiana law in canceling plans to expand its facilities in Indianapolis. Celebrities have ridiculed the law, entertainers have canceled tour dates in the state because of it, a gaming convention is considering going elsewhere, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York on Tuesday became the latest governor to impose a ban on state-funded travel to Indiana, joining his counterparts in Connecticut and Washington.

Several Republican presidential contenders have spoken out in favor of Indiana’s law, which could affect the presidential hopes of Mr. Pence, himself. The law risks alienating centrists who favor gay rights, but backing away from it could anger Christians conservatives.

The uproar in Arkansas and Indiana has drawn attention — and the same kind of fire — to similar bills working their way through other legislatures. The governor of North Carolina, Pat McCrory, a Republican, said he would veto a bill there.

Mr. Pence said Tuesday: “If this law had been about discrimination, I would have vetoed it. I don’t believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate, or a right to deny services to gays, lesbians or anyone else in this state, and that was not my intent, but I appreciate that that’s become the perception.”

But some of Indiana’s and the nation’s most prominent anti-gay rights groups have been among the most prominent supporters of the bill, including the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Indiana Family Institute and Advance America. And some advocates of the law have disagreed with Mr. Pence, saying that it could be used to defend a business’s right to deny service to gay people.

Bigotry plain and simple. Ignorance plain and simple.

It appears Arkansas and Indiana are two states likely to miss out on lots of tourism business, and many sensible businesses will stay away. ...

You can justify anything with a literal quotation from the Bible.

Fellow Republicans have said the governor added fuel to the fire on Sunday, when he did not directly answer some questions about the law in an interview on the ABC program “This Week,” in particular a question about whether a florist could deny service to a gay couple on religious grounds.

“I could have handled that better,” he said Tuesday. “But going into that interview this weekend, I was just determined to set the record straight.”

Asked again about the hypothetical florist, Mr. Pence said, “This law does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”

Defenders of the measure say they have been bewildered by the controversy, since it is patterned on a 1993 federal law of the same name, passed with bipartisan support and signed by President Bill Clinton, as well as on similar state laws.

“Was I expecting this kind of backlash?” Mr. Pence said. “Heavens, no.”

But the Indiana law has some differences from the federal law, and most of the state laws, that critics say are significant, including a provision explicitly stating that it applies to the exercise of religious beliefs by businesses as well as individuals and religious groups. The idea that a for-profit business has religious rights, and can cite them in contesting government action, was not widely considered until recently. But last year the Supreme Court upheld that principle in the case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores.

Another difference between Indiana’s law and most similar ones is that it says businesses can use religious freedom as a defense against lawsuits brought by individuals, not just those filed by the government.

In Washington, a White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, took issue with Mr. Pence’s claim that Indiana’s law was rooted in a 1993 federal law. The Indiana measure, Mr. Earnest said, was a “significant expansion” over the 1993 law because it applied to private transactions beyond those involving the federal government.

In some states, concerns like those raised in Indiana have been addressed with laws that specifically prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Mr. Pence was asked on Tuesday if he would consider taking that step.

“I’ve never supported that, and I want to be clear, it’s not on my agenda,” he said. “I think it’s a completely separate question.”
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