Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday morning he will not sign a controversial religious liberty bill, saying he wants lawmakers to recall the bill and change it so that it more closely resembles federal law.
“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” he said during a news conference. “But these are not ordinary times.”
A similar bill in Indiana prompted a firestorm in that state, as critics — including the NCAA and Apple chief executive Tim Cook — assailed a law that critics said could be used to let businesses discriminate against gay couples. But on Tuesday, several hours after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) said his state would “fix” the bill in response to the controversy, Arkansas legislators overwhelmingly voted to approve their own version of the law.
Proponents of these laws say they are necessary to protect the rights of religious people. The Arkansas law, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, says in its text that it exists to safeguard a person’s right not to do something that conflicts with their religious beliefs.
“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 before it was passed on 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.”
But the Indiana law and the Arkansas bill have drawn particular fire because unlike the federal religious freedom law signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993 and similar laws in states across the country, these new bills say that companies can have the same religious rights as individuals, which opponents say could be used to let businesses discriminate against gay couples.
Hutchinson’s decision not to sign the current bill “is a sign of progress,” Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Wednesday.
“But the proof will be in the pudding, and we must now wait to see what actions and language Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas Legislature put forward in the coming days and weeks,” Griffin said in a statement. “It is imperative that any legislation that advances must have language that explicitly ensures that it will not undermine the fundamental rights of LGBT people and all other Arkansans.”
The White House was sharply critical of the Indiana and Arkansas laws on Wednesday.
“The thought that we would have state legislatures in the 21st century in the United States of America passing laws that would use religion to try to justify discriminating against people because of who they love is unthinkable,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing.
Earnest said that the Indiana bill is “a terrible idea,” which prompted the outcry and forced Pence and Hutchinson to try and rework the legislation.
While Hutchinson said the current bill is fairly straightforward, he says the issue “has become divisive because our nation remains split over how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions.”
This fissure has reached his own household, Hutchinson said, describing how his son, Seth, signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.
Hutchinson, who took office earlier this year, had previously vowed to sign the bill, saying in a statement earlier this week that “if this bill reaches my desk in similar form as to what has been passed in 20 other states then I will sign it.”
However, his statement was issued before Indiana lawmakers said they would amend their bill and before Wal-Mart, among other business groups, called on him to veto it.
Doug McMillon, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, said in a statement after the bill was passed by state lawmakers that the legislation “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,” he said in a statement Tuesday.
This Arkansas bill includes language that says it would become law even if Hutchinson did nothing. An emergency clause 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. (Emergency clauses are allowed by state law, as long as they are approved by two-thirds of state lawmakers, and both houses of the state legislature agreed to add the clause here.) However, it is unclear what happens to this language now that the bill may be withdrawn by state lawmakers for additional work.
Ballinger, an attorney who represents a district in northwestern Arkansas, argued Tuesday that his bill is similar to the federal law as well as those enacted around the country.
“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.”
This controversy has also extended to other states, leaving the fates of similar bills up in the air. A bill being considered in North Carolina would “make no sense,” Gov. Pat McRrory (R) said in a radio interview. Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers scrapped 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.
Arkansas State Rep. Clark Tucker, a Democrat, spoke on the House floor on Tuesday during a debate over adding anti-discrimination language. The language was not added, and the bill was sent to the governor’s desk that afternoon.
“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.”
[This post has been updated.]