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."
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 Brooks, 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).
The governor added on Twitter that he is "committed to signing a RFRA law."
Hutchinson cited the criticism he has received, saying that even his son signed a petition asking him to veto the bill. 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.
"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."
Seth Hutchinson later issued a statement saying he was "happy" with his father's decision.
"I'm proud to have made a small contribution to the overall effort to stop discrimination against the LGBT community in Arkansas, the state that I love (Go hogs!)" he said. "I love and respect my father very much, but sometimes we have political disagreements, just as many families do. Most importantly, I hope that the groundswell of grassroots opposition to HB 1228 and other similar discriminatory bills around the country will energize more Americans and help create a long-lasting drive for change in this country, on many issues."
"I love and respect my father very much, but sometimes we have political disagreements, just as many families do."'
Civil liberties advocates were encouraged by Gov. Hutchinson's commitment to ensuring that the RFRA could not be used as a license to discriminate, but remain anxious to see what lawmakers come back with. "Any language that the legislature presents to the public has to ensure that RFRA cannot be used to discriminate or harm others," Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told reporters on a press call Wednesday.
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. Nearly 40 tech executives issued a joint statement calling on state legislators to explicitly prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians.
"Anything less will only serve to place barriers between people, create hurdles to creativity and inclusion, and smother the kind of open and transparent society that is necessary to create the jobs of the future. Discrimination is bad for business and that’s why we've taken the time to join this joint statement," the executives said in the statement, which was released by the Human Rights Campaign.
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."
Meanwhile, the backlash to Indiana's religious freedom law continues to grow, threatening to cast an ugly shadow over the upcoming Final Four championship, which will take place in Indianapolis. On Wednesday, the Final Four coaches issued a joint statement saying they were aware of the law and had made it a point to talk about the issue with their teams. The NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, has already spoken out against the law.
"Each of us strongly supports the positions of the NCAA and our respective institutions on this matter -- that discrimination of any kind should not be tolerated," the coaches said. "As a part of America's higher education system, college basketball plays an important role in diversity, equality, fairness and inclusion, and will continue to do so in the future."