The Arkansas House of Representatives gave final approval today to a bill that would allow businesses and individuals to discriminate against people who offend their religious beliefs — such as by being LGBT or following a different faith.
The House, which had passed a version of the bill earlier, overwhelmingly OK’d three amendments added by the state Senate, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports, and it now goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has pledged to sign it into law.
None of the amendments changed the basic intent of the legislation, House Bill 1228, which is titled the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It is similar to the Indiana RFRA, signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence last week. It would forbid the state to “substantially burden” a person’s religious practices unless there is a compelling government interest in doing so. As is the case with Indiana's controversial new law, the Arkansas legislation defines "person" to include businesses and organizations, meaning it would allow such groups to cite religious beliefs in turning away customers.
Rep. Bob Ballinger, the bill’s sponsor, said it “identically mirrors” the federal RFRA, signed into law by President Clinton in 1993, but there are some key differences. The federal law does not explicitly allow for-profit businesses to claim a right to free exercise of religion, but the Arkansas law, like Indiana’s, does. Both also let parties assert religious rights in lawsuits in which the government is not involved — say, if a same-sex couple sued a vendor of wedding goods for declining to serve them. (For the record, some courts have held that the federal RFRA can apply to private parties’ disputes; others have said it does not.)
“Even so, the point of the language expressly applying HB 1228 to disputes between private parties is clear: To provide added ammunition in a court case over someone claiming a religious exemption,” writes Arkansas Times blogger Lindsey Millar. “And we all know what sort of religious exemptions the law was crafted to address, despite claims [from] Ballinger that he was motivated to run the bill to protect religious beliefs, not to promote discrimination.”
Some legislators attempted to amend the bill to make clear that it would not allow discrimination, but those efforts ultimately failed. “If you start shaving out exemptions in laws, next thing you know, you’ll gut the law because everyone will want an exemption,” Sen. Bart Hester, one of the bill’s leading backers, told The New York Times. Attempts to return the bill to committee also failed.
Businesses such as Walmart, which is headquartered in Arkansas, and Apple (along with its CEO, Tim Cook), have spoken out against this and similar bills. The outcry that has focused on Indiana in the past few days will soon expand to include Arkansas, said Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native, in a statement calling on Gov. Hutchinson to veto the bill.
"The legislation is shameful, pure and simple," said Griffin Tuesday. "Governor Hutchinson has a moral duty to veto this legislation, or his reputation will be forever stained by siding with a divisive political faction over the rights of his own people — and by dragging my home state toward the wrong side of history."