LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Lawmakers in Arkansas and Indiana are scrambling to revise controversial religious objection measures as Republican governors in both states try to quell a growing backlash from businesses and other critics who have called the proposals anti-gay.
A day after Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called on the Legislature to change the measure he had once said he'd sign into law, House leaders hoped to give final approval Thursday to a bill to address his concerns. Legislative leaders in Indiana were also working on efforts to change that state's similar recently enacted law.
Hutchinson asked lawmakers to recall the bill, which would prohibit state and local government from infringing upon someone's religious beliefs without a compelling reason, from his desk to amend it or pass a follow-up measure that would make the proposal more closely mirror a federal religious freedom law.
"How do we as a state communicate to the world that we are respectful of a diverse workplace and we want to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance?" Hutchinson said to reporters at the Capitol Wednesday. "That is the challenge we face. Making this law like the federal law will aid us in that effort in communication, but also was my original objective from the beginning."
Hutchinson was the second governor in as many days to give ground to opponents of the legislation. After Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure last week, Pence and fellow Republicans endured days of sharp criticism from around the country. Pence is now seeking follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law could allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
Hutchinson's office as recently as Tuesday had said he planned to sign the bill, but a day later he called for changes.
He has faced pressure from the state's largest employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart, that had called the bill discriminatory and said would hurt Arkansas' image. Hutchinson noted that his own son, Seth, had signed a petition urging his dad to veto the bill.
"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial," the governor said. "But these are not ordinary times."
Neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentions gays and lesbians, but opponents are concerned that the language contained in them could offer a legal defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.
Supporters insist the law will only give religious objectors a chance to bring their case before a judge.
Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, with some differences. Indiana and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.
The proposal approved by the Arkansas Senate on Wednesday night only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. Supporters of the amended version said the change means businesses denying services to someone on religious grounds could not use the law as a defense.
Opponents of the law were encouraged by Hutchinson's comments.
"What's clear is the governor has been listening," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group. Now opponents have to "keep the pressure on," he said.
Conservative groups that sought the measure questioned the need for any changes and said Hutchinson should sign the bill as is.
"I'm very puzzled at this point to see why the bill would need to be amended at this late date, considering everybody in the chamber has had a chance to see it," said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. "I think it's been thoroughly vetted, and it's a good law."
Arkansas legislators face a short window to act. The governor has five days after the bill is formally delivered to him to take action before it becomes law without his signature, and lawmakers are aiming to wrap up this year's session Thursday.
In Indiana, Republican legislative leaders huddled behind closed doors for hours with Pence, business executives and other lawmakers, but did not come to an agreement on how to clarify the law.
House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long indicated they hope to have language ready for possible votes Thursday.
The Indianapolis Star, which obtained a draft of proposed language, reported that it would specify that the law cannot be used as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods or accommodations based on a person's sexual orientation.
Associated Press writers Allen Reed in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Tom Davies in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
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