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Friday, July 12, 2024 | Back issues
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Ark. Gov. Backpedals on Religious Freedom Law

(CN) - Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday asked state lawmakers to either recall or amend a so-called "religious freedom" measure modeled after an Indiana law that has inspired a nationwide backlash from businesses and gay rights groups.

The Republican governor said he wants the law reworked so that it more closely mirrors a 1993 federal religious freedom law.

"This issue has become devisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions of firmly held religious convictions," Hutchinson told reporters during a press conference in Little Rock. "It has divided families and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue."

"What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance and secondly, we make sure that we communicate we're not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future," he said.

As recently as Tuesday, Hutchinson had said he planned to sign the bill, but a number of the state's top employers, including Wal-Mart, reportedly complained the law is discriminatory and could stall economic development.

Even as he seemed to modify his position, however, Hutchinson defended the law, saying it "does not extend discrimination."

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times," Hutchinson said, noting that his own son Seth was among those who signed a petition demanding that he veto the bill.

Like the law generating so much controversy in Indiana, the bill approved by the Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday grants businesses the right to religious freedom and allows them to refuse service to potential patrons if the beliefs or lifestyles of those patrons conflicts with those of the owner or employees.

The legislation also allows individuals who feel their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened to cite that argument as a claim or a defense in litigation.

Critics of both the Indiana and Arkansas laws point out this language is not present in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and say its inclusion is a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to legalize intolerance and outright discrimination.

Jonathan Dismang, president pro tem of the Arkansas Senate, and Jeremy Gillam, the state's House speaker, have both said on Wednesday that they'd heed Hutchinson's call to change the law, but gave no indication what those changes might be.

In Indiana, several major companies, including Apple, and celebrities, like Miley Cyrus, Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman, and the band Wilco have spoken out against the law or cancelled appearances since it was signed by Gov. Mike Pence last week.

Pence continues to defend the law, but has called for a legislative "fix" that would clarify that the law does not allow businesses to discriminate.

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