On Tuesday afternoon, after some debate in the state House of Representatives, lawmakers signed off on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law now heads to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who has said he intends to sign it into law.
“This legislation doesn’t allow anybody to discriminate against anybody, not here,” State Rep. Bob Ballinger, a Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The bill does just the opposite. It focuses on the civil rights of people believing what they want to believe, and not letting the government interfere with that.”
Ballinger, an attorney who represents a district in northwestern Arkansas, said that he agrees with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) in that “there needs to be some clarity in the perception of the legislation.”
“What my bill does is protect a person’s right to believe what they want to believe,” he said. “That should be the focus of this bill, without being muddied by a bunch of other things. As it sits right now, it’s not going to enable a person to discriminate.”
Ballinger said that the bill he sponsored is similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the laws in place in other states. However, critics say that the bill in Arkansas — as well as the Indiana law — are dissimilar because of how they allow companies the same religious rights as individuals.
“It’s substantively different from other laws that are on the books in other states, and it’s right in line with Indiana’s,” Adam Talbot, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said Monday. “Indiana and Arkansas both grant ‘personhood’ to all corporations.”
As the collective outrage aimed at Indianapolis grew, activist groups were joined by high-profile business leaders (like Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple) and organizations (like the NCAA), which Indiana’s leaders say caught them by surprise. “Was I expecting this kind of backlash?” Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) said Tuesday at a news conference. “Heavens no.”
This controversy has also extended to other states. A similar bill in North Carolina would “make no sense,” Gov. Pat McRrory (R) said in a radio interview, while explaining that he was not inclined to sign such legislation. Georgia lawmakers canceled a hearing that would have touched on their version of the bill Monday, leaving its immediate future uncertain as the legislative session is expected to end Thursday.
The Arkansas bill, which has been criticized by Wal-Mart, other businesses and rights groups, has not yet become the focal point that the Indiana law has become. This latest bill was approved Tuesday in Little Rock despite a last-minute attempt to send it back to a legislative committee so that an anti-discrimination amendment could be added.
State Rep. Clark Tucker, a Democrat, spoke on the House floor in favor of adding such language.
“I think everyone in this room is aware that this bill has attracted a lot of attention,” he said. “I think every member of this body and the vast majority of the general public supports protecting religious liberty. I do believe it’s attracted a lot of public attention because it creates the perception that it affirmatively authorizes discrimination.”
Tucker said in his statement on the House floor he believed that the current bill “could create discriminatory effects.”
Still, the bill was approved and sent to Hutchinson, who said he intends to sign it.
“I have said if this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states then I will sign it, but I am pleased that the legislature is continuing to look at ways to assure balance and fairness in the legislation,” Hutchinson said in a statement Monday.
However, the bill could become law even if it makes it to Hutchinson’s desk and he does not act. A note in the bill’s text says that it goes into effect whether he signs off on it or simply lets it sit on his desk until the window allocated for him to act runs out.
Hutchinson’s office said it did not have a timeframe for when he might act on the bill.
“This is not a conservative or liberal thing,” Ballinger said. “Most people agree that religion should be protected under heightened scrutiny standards, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Ballinger said that his bill does not address the issue of whether or not people could be turned away by a business due to their sexuality, saying that this could already happen.
“That question does not even apply to my bill, because currently as it applies, the LGBT is not in a protected class, so my bill would not address that,” he said.
He also said that if someone wants to legislatively add anti-discriminatory language, the way to do that is for someone to push forward a bill with that kind of wording.
“It may take some time for people to realize that it’s not any different from the law that’s in place in 31 other states,” he said. “The law that was voted on by President Clinton, that was voted on by President Obama, twice. This bill does exactly what those bills do, which is protect an individual’s religious liberty.”