Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a compromise religious-protection bill into law Thursday, capping a week of demonstrations, negotiations and national media attention with a few strokes of a pen.
Not even 24 hours old, Senate Bill 975, which mirrors the language of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, reached the governor's desk after a 76-17 vote Thursday in the House of Representatives. It was signed into law less than an hour later.
Before signing, Hutchinson noted the outreach from business and grass-roots leaders and said that though the bill prompted a "contentious debate," it was solved in the "Arkansas way."
"I think what [lawmakers] have done in the last 24 hours is something every Arkansan can be proud of," Hutchinson said. "It protects religious freedom. It is a framework for decisions by the courts that has to balance all the issues in our society and continue to recognize that in Arkansas and across our nation we have a diverse workforce and a diverse culture."
The law, modeled after the 1993 federal law signed by President Bill Clinton, exists in about 20 other states and is aimed at expanding legal protections for those who refuse, for religious reasons, to follow a law.
By the letter of SB975, neither state nor local laws or policies can infringe on one's beliefs unless the government can demonstrate that it has a "compelling" interest and that it is using that "least restrictive" means to achieve it.
The compromise bill came a day after Hutchinson received House Bill 1228 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, and said that the bill strayed too far from the time-tested standard of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The governor called on lawmakers to strike a balance between religious rights and the desire to grow a diverse Arkansas.
Ballinger's version of the bill was longer and could be used as a legal protection in cases where there was no government action or law, which critics said created too many legal uncertainties and opened the door for greater discrimination against unprotected classes of people, including gays.
Supporters of the House bill say there are recent cases in which Americans have been punished because of their religious convictions. Bakers in Colorado and Oregon, for example, have been sued because they refused to sell wedding cakes to gay couples.
HB1228 sparked days of organized protests from groups that felt the bill was discriminatory, and Hutchinson received several requests from corporate leaders, including from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to veto Ballinger's bill.
Speaking from the House floor Thursday, Ballinger said he has worked for years to protect the rights of religious believers and that SB975 accomplished that goal. He said his earlier version of the bill was good and did not discriminate.
"The confusion associated with 1228 and the misconceptions with 1228, has caused enough problems that we figured we'd go back to the drawing board," Ballinger said. "Our citizens, when we're done, are going to be protected."
Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, tried to have HB1228 overhauled Tuesday night to meet the same federal standards. Though her motion was voted down in the House, the bill signed by Hutchinson Thursday did exactly that.
Bennett, among others, played an instrumental role in the negotiations to enact SB975 and said the legislation was good, "bipartisan" legislation that could satisfy all parties.
"As a legislator, as an Arkansan and as a Christian, I am very proud of us," Bennett said.
Many Republicans were unhappy with the last-minute compromise.
Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs, was the lone legislator to speak out Thursday against the revised version.
"We voted for this bill ... four times. It was voted on and approved four times, and it was sent to the governor's desk," Miller said. "I for one do not appreciate someone hiding behind this [legislative] body. ... I ask we do not vote on this bill."
The House also voted Thursday to recall HB1228 from Hutchinson's desk, a move that enabled the bill to die without receiving a gubernatorial veto.
On Wednesday, Jerry Cox, the head of the Arkansas Family Council, said he was surprised by Hutchinson's decision to backtrack on HB1228, especially after the governor had publicly supported the bill.
Thursday, the Christian conservative leader said that he preferred Ballinger's version, but was satisfied with the bill that Hutchinson eventually signed.
"These laws simply guarantee all Arkansans enjoy equal protection from the government infringing their free exercise of religion," Cox wrote in a statement. "[HB1228] was the Rolls Royce of religious freedom laws. ... The replacement bill, is a Cadillac."
Gay-rights activists were less enthusiastic about the new law.
The Human Rights Campaign -- which helped organize the Capitol protests -- called SB975 the "lesser of two evils."
"I'd rather have no evil," said Kendra Johnson, the group's Arkansas director. "It's not over yet. We can't stop pushing, we can't stop organizing until we have full and equal protection [for all] under the laws of Arkansas."
Many opponents had wanted SB975 to have a nondiscrimination clause, similar to the one added to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana that was also signed into law Thursday. They said the final version in Arkansas would still provide aid and encouragement to those who discriminate.
A handful of Democrats, including House Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong of North Little Rock and Rep. Warwick Sabin of Little Rock, voted against SB975 on the House floor for that reason.
"When you look at other states that have a version of RFRA, they usually contain some sort of protection against discrimination, or those states' civil-rights codes protect against discrimination in the ways that a RFRA without those protections wouldn't allow," Sabin said, using and abbreviation for the law. "I still feel like this is bad policy for the state."
Asked why anti-discrimination language wasn't included in the final law, Hutchinson said SB975 was a balancing act between both political parties as well as two branches of government.
"The fact that it doesn't solve a problem for everyone probably means it's a good bill," Hutchinson said. "The debate goes on."
Metro on 04/03/2015
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