POLITICS

Arkansas governor backtracks on religious freedom bill, says divisive issue has touched home

Kristen Hooper, center, and Robert Loyd, right, hold a sign on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol thanking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for calling for changes to a religious objection measure  in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The measure faced a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

Kristen Hooper, center, and Robert Loyd, right, hold a sign on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol thanking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for calling for changes to a religious objection measure in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. The measure faced a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)  (ap)

After initially supporting a divisive bill on religious freedom that critics say is biased against gays, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Wednesday for either a recall or a follow-up measure that addresses the discriminatory concerns.

Hutchinson said that even his son Seth was among the people who had signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times," he said.

The Republican governor said he wants changes to the bill that lawmakers sent him prohibiting state and local government from infringing upon someone's religious beliefs without a compelling interest.

"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," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

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The proposed law would give companies the same religious-liberty rights as individuals, and critics say could give businesses more room to discriminate.

Hutchinson's move comes after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure into law last week. Pence this week said he wants follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law allows businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Hutchinson didn't specifically call for changes that would prohibit the law from being used to deny services to someone, but said he didn't believe the bill was intended to do so.

"This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination," Hutchinson said.

Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

Echoing the reaction to Indiana's law, Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state's top employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart, which complained that the measure was discriminatory and would stifle economic development. Little Rock's mayor, the city's Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas-based data services company Acxiom all urged the governor to reject the measure in recent days.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson hopes to attract to the state.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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