LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas inched closer Friday toward becoming the second state this year to adopt a law that critics say would sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians, with the state Senate approving a religious protection bill.
The bill, approved by the Senate 24-7, prevents state and local government from taking any action that substantially burdens someone's religious beliefs unless a "compelling" interest is proven. The measure heads for a final vote next week in the House, which has already approved an initial version. The proposal faces an easy path forward, because Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he'll sign it into law.
One of the lawmakers behind the proposal said he didn't believe the measure would lead to widespread discrimination.
"You certainly cannot legislate meanness in certain people, and people are going to be mean whether we have this law or not," Republican Sen. Bart Hester told reporters after the vote.
But opponents have called it a thinly-veiled effort to endorse bias against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, with one lawmaker comparing it to the religious grounds used to endorse racial segregation and slavery.
"Having grown up in the South all my life, I know that religious freedom has meant that slavery was OK, it has meant that Jim Crow was OK, it has meant that it was OK to keep people from achieving that which they deserved," Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock said before the vote. "It is impossible for me having suffered from that religious freedom in a negative way to fail to say that we are better than this."
Before the bill reaches the governor's desk, the House must agree to amendments that were made that supporters say are aimed at addressing concerns the measure could open the door to discrimination. But opponents of the bill say the changes are little more than cosmetic.
Six of the Senate's 11 Democrats voted against the measure. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, the governor's nephew and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the only Republican to oppose the measure. Hutchinson and Democratic Sen. David Burnett both switched their votes to against after approving it in committee earlier this week.
Hutchinson said he regretted voting for the measure in committee.
"I think there are instances where religious activities are over-regulated, but in my estimation that does not outweigh the chance that somebody uses religion to do what Jesus would not want to be done in his name, which is to discriminate against somebody and offend a brother or sister," Hutchinson said after the vote.
If the governor signs the measure into law, it'll make Arkansas the second state to enact such a change this year. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar religious protection bill into law Thursday, and 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.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT rights group, has stepped up its campaign against the measure and planned to run a newspaper ad in the San Jose Mercury News and on websites targeting the technology firms the governor has said he wants to draw to Arkansas. Retail giant Wal-Mart has said the measure sends the wrong message about its home state.
The proposal is advancing a month after Hutchinson allowed a measure to become law without his signature that prohibits local governments from enacting anti-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation or gender identity.
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