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Scaled-back religious freedom bill becomes law in Arkansas

Updated

Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Thursday signed a scaled-back version of a controversial religious freedom measure that became the target of widespread condemnation from businesses, tech leaders, celebrities, politicians, and even his own son.

The measure – SB 975 – quickly moved through Arkansas’ Republican-controlled legislature Thursday as an alternative to HB 1228, otherwise known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA.) The governor announced on Wednesday that he would not sign the legislation in its current form due to concerns that it could allow for discrimination against LGBT people. Hutchinson asked leaders in the general assembly to either recall the bill so it could be amended, or pass additional changes so it more closely resembled the federal RFRA.

“This is an Arkansas solution,” Hutchinson said Thursday as he signed SB 975 into law, according to ABC-affiliate KHBS. “This bill … celebrates freedom and diversity.”

RELATED: Indiana an object lesson for wary Arkansas governor

Unlike the earlier version of Arkansas’ RFRA, SB 975 only applies to disputes in which the government is involved, not to disputes between private parties. Supporters of the change say it will prevent businesses from citing their religious beliefs as a defense to discriminate or deny services to individuals. Opponents, however, say the measure still needs explicit language barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The fact remains that the only way to ensure LGBT Arkansans are treated equally under state law is to add explicit protections for them,” said Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign’s Legal Director, in a statement. “Moving forward, Arkansas should explicitly clarify that the RFRA cannot be used to undermine non-discrimination protections at any level.  In addition, all states and the federal government should provide explicit non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Hutchinson signed the law just as Indiana’s Republican-controlled legislature put its final stamp of approval on a proposed “fix” to a similarly controversial religious freedom law that has transformed that state into a target of intense backlash. Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed the proposed fix later Thursday. 

Indiana’s fix, which drew mixed reactions, makes clear that RFRA does not authorize a provider to refuse services, facilities, the use of public accommodations, goods, employment, or housing on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service.

“There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’” Pence said in a statement. “I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”

Arkansas, Asa Hutchinson, Indiana, Mike Pence and Religion

Scaled-back religious freedom bill becomes law in Arkansas

Updated