Gus Kenworthy
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Arkansas Governor Won't Sign Bill — Yet

Arkansas Governor Won't Sign Bill — Yet

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said his own son had signed a petition asking him not to sign his state's "Religious Freedom Restoration Act," and as it turns out, he isn't signing it yet.

At least not in its current form.

"My responsibility is to speak out on my own convictions, to make sure this bill protects the values of the people of Akansas, protects those of religious conscious, but also minimizes the chance of discrimination," Hutchinson told reporters at a Wednesday press conference regarding the future of House Bill 1228.

Although Hutchinson had long pledged to sign the bill if sent to his desk, he changed his mind and explained why in a news conference held Wednesday morning. He said the current version of the bill doesn't mirror the federal version of the law, signed in 1993 by President Clinton, from which it gets its name. So he's asking lawmakers to make changes.

"This legislation is not about picking winners and losers," said Hutchinson at the press conference. "This legislation is about the right standards and the right balance, that courts can interpret that. What is important from Arkansas's standpoint is that we get the right balance, and we make sure that we communicate that we are not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace and our economy."

The Arkansas version of the law, like its Indiana companion, goes much further and creates what activists call a "license to discriminate" for individuals in disputes with each other — as opposed to focusing solely on legal disputes with the government.

Rep. Bob Ballinger, the bill’s sponsor, had claimed it “identically mirrors” the federal RFRA, but Hutchinson made clear on Wednesday that he disagrees.

"When you look at what's on my desk, it does not mirror the federal law, and that's what I would prefer," the governor told reporters. "And what I've asked [lawmakers] to do."

The Arkansas bill 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.

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.)

Responding to activist's calls to strengthen and expand the scope of the state's nondiscrimination laws, Gov. Hutchinson said he is currently drafting an executive order that would accomplish that goal — at least for state employees. 

"We're looking at an executive order to aid in that communication, and to make it clear that Arkansas wants to be a place of tolerance and wants to be a place that gets the right balance between religious freedom and nondiscrimination," said the governor. 

He also mentioned a forthcoming ballot initiative that would consider repealing any existing nondiscrimination laws — which currently do not include protections based sexual orientation or gender identity. 

In fact, just last month, Hutchinson declined to take any action on a pending law which prohibits localities from enacting more inclusive nondiscrimination policies than those currently enumerated in state law. The governor did not sign the bill, but he also did not veto it, allowing the law to pass, and take effect 90 days after the legislature adjourns in May, when it will presumably invalidate the existing LGBT-inclusive policies of progressive Arkansas towns like Eureka Springs and Little Rock. 

Check back for updates.

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