Colman Domingo
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Arkansas Poised to Enact 'License to Discriminate'

Arkansas Poised to Enact 'License to Discriminate'

Arkansas is getting closer to passing a revived “religious freedom” bill that opponents say would make it legal to discriminate against LGBT people.

House Bill 1228, which was blocked by a Senate committee in February, passed out of that committee last week after a member changed his vote, then passed the full Senate Friday. The House, which had OK’d a previous version of the legislation, now needs to approve amendments made by the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee approved those this morning, moving the measure to a vote by the full House, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he will sign the bill into law.

The legislation would forbid the state to “substantially burden” a person’s religious practices unless there is a compelling government interest in doing so. Its definition of person also includes businesses and organizations, meaning it would allow them to turn away customers who somehow offend the proprietor’s religious beliefs — for instance, same-sex couples seeking wedding-related goods or services, or people who practice a different faith. It is similar to laws enacted recently in Indiana and last year in Mississippi.

Opponents of the measure held an emergency meeting Sunday night in Little Rock and protested at the state capitol there today. These opponents include major corporations that operate in the state, such as Apple and Walmart. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for instance, wrote a guest column that ran in The Washington Post over the weekend opposing this and similar bills. He also sent out a tweet denouncing the Indiana legislation and urging Gov. Hutchinson to veto the Arkansas bill.

Earlier, former Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel expressed his opposition in a column for the Democrat-Gazette, saying the measure “would allow individuals and businesses across this state to refuse service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Arkansans, to women, to religious minorities — and to any other Arkansan who may face regular discrimination.”

Arkansas has no statewide law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and it has passed a measure, Senate Bill 202, that would prevent cities and counties from enacting or enforcing such laws. HB 1228 appears to be a “safety net” desired by antigay legislators should SB 202 be declared unconstitutional, an official with the Arkansas affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union said at Sunday’s meeting, according to the Democrat-Gazette.

“They’re running scared because they see equality coming, and that’s what this is all about,” said ACLU of Arkansas legal director Holly Dixon.

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