LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he would sign into law a religious protection measure that opponents have said amounts to a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the state.
The Republican governor said he supports the latest version of a bill prohibiting state and local government from infringing upon someone's religious beliefs without a "compelling government interest." The Senate is expected to take up the legislation Friday.
If Hutchinson signs the measure into law, it'll make Arkansas the second state to enact such a change this year; earlier Thursday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar religious protection bill into law. Similar proposals have been introduced in about a dozen states.
The legislation is patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.
Hutchinson said he believed Arkansas' latest version addressed concerns he had expressed last month about the bill having unintended consequences when it comes to discrimination, and strikes the right balance.
"I think it's a bill that puts a high priority on religious freedom and recognizes that as a part of the balance," Hutchinson said at a news conference.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, stepped up its opposition to the measure. Along with online ads elsewhere, the group said it is running a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News opposing the measure, aimed at targeting Silicon Valley firms as Hutchinson tries to lure more high-tech industries to Arkansas.
Apple has said it opposes the Arkansas proposal, while retail giant Wal-Mart has said the legislation sends the wrong message about its home state.
"This is a concerted effort by a hateful political faction to say that Arkansas does not welcome all its citizens, sending a clear message that this state is not open for business and all this is happening on Gov. Hutchinson's watch," HRC president Chad Griffin said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Opponents of the proposal also said changes made to the legislation Wednesday night defining compliance with federal civil rights laws as a compelling government interest and removing "indirect" burdens did nothing to allay their concerns.
"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," Griffin said.
The proposal is advancing a month after Hutchinson allowed legislation to become law without his signature that bans local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation or gender identity.
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