Arkansas Senate panel backs once-stalled 'conscience protection' bill cast as anti-LGBT

An effort to prevent Arkansas government from infringing on someone's religious beliefs was revived Tuesday, with a state Senate panel advancing a bill that critics have called a thinly veiled endorsement of discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The legislation approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would ban state and local government from taking action that would burden someone's religious beliefs unless a "compelling governmental interest" is proven. The bill, if enacted, would strengthen any case of a person suing the government if that person could prove their religious beliefs were infringed upon. The Senate could take up the bill as soon as Wednesday.

The lawmaker behind the proposal said he didn't view the measure as anti-gay, and said it was aimed at giving Arkansans more protections for their religious beliefs and practices.

"It's pro-religion, the ability for someone to carry out their beliefs without the state bugging them about it," Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville told the panel. "That's what this is."

The legislation is patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have similar laws and several states are currently considering them.

The same measure stalled before the panel last month on a 3-3 vote after retail giant Wal-Mart said the proposal sent the wrong message about its home state and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had reservations about the bill. The panel advanced the measure Tuesday on a 5-3 vote, with Democratic Sen. David Burnett joining the committee's four Republicans in support.

"This is a shameful outcome for a shameful bill," Kendra Johnson, the state director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement. "The fight now turns to the full Senate, where all fair-minded Arkansans must stand together to halt this destructive legislation that undermines the core values of this state."

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock, who voted against the measure, called it "terrible."

"There is something very, very wrong when you allow religion to be the excuse for discrimination," Chesterfield said after the vote. "That is exactly what we've allowed here to happen."

The bill is another setback for gay rights groups, a month after Hutchinson allowed separate legislation to become law that bans local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Hutchinson had expressed concerns about that bill infringing on local control, but allowed it to become law without his signature — a move governors have used to express displeasure with legislation without prompting a veto fight with lawmakers. It takes a simple majority to override a governor's veto in Arkansas.

The governor has stopped short of saying whether he'd sign the "conscience protection" measure if it reaches his desk. On Tuesday he said he supported changes made aimed at addressing his concerns about unintended consequences.

"I will continue to monitor any additional changes and how this proceeds through the legislative process," he said in a statement released by his office.


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