Indiana, Arkansas take different tacks in trying to stem uproar over religious objection laws

Two states roiled by criticism over new religious objections laws are looking to move forward after taking different approaches to changing the legislation to ease concerns about discrimination.

The governors of Indiana and Arkansas signed bills Thursday that lawmakers hoped would quiet the national uproar over whether the laws offered a legal defense for discrimination against gays.

For Arkansas, the changes requested by Gov. Asa Hutchinson amid mounting criticism from retail giant Wal-Mart and other businesses meant revising the language to closely align with that in the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. But for Indiana, which had seen businesses and organizations ban travel and cancel conventions, the solution was an amendment that put the first references to sexual orientation and gender identity into state law.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who said the law was never intended to allow discrimination and blamed the fallout on "mischaracterizations" of the legislation, signed the bill privately Thursday and urged residents to move on.

"However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward," he said.

The revised Indiana law prohibits service providers from using it as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.

The measure exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with nonprofit religious organizations.

Business leaders called the amendment a good first step but said more work needs to be done. Gay-rights groups noted that Indiana's civil-rights law still does not include LGBT people as a protected class.

Democrats said the damage done by the uproar could last for years, and some groups, including the Indiana Catholic Conference and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., raised concern that the law now goes too far and could open the door to discrimination against other groups or allow for criminal prosecutions.

"People of faith should not be coerced to violate their conscience in their daily lives," the Catholic conference said in a statement.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, now a senior vice president at drugmaker Eli Lilly, praised the changes but said the state's image must still be mended.

"The healing needs to begin right now," he said.

Arkansas was able to avert much of the fallout Indiana has seen by making changes before Hutchinson signed the law. The revised language more closely mirrors the 1993 federal law and only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. Supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals. Opponents said they believed the measure still needs explicit anti-discrimination language.

The lawmaker behind the original Arkansas proposal backed the changes, saying he believed the law would still protect religious beliefs.

"We're going to allow a person to believe what they want to believe without the state coming in and burdening that unless they've got a good reason to do so," Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger told the House Judiciary Committee.

Despite some conservative groups saying the Indiana changes wrongly weakened religious liberty protections for business owners, legislative leaders maintained that a week of national turmoil needed to be addressed.

"It is causing real harm to real people right now in our state. I'm not talking about those who feel their rights are being infringed, I'm talking about commerce in a major, major way," Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said. "So we had to be prompt. We had to be swift."

With the men's basketball Final Four set for this weekend in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert said the Indiana law "absolutely, positively" needed to change. Emmert even suggested that the organization could take its business out of the state if the law wasn't fixed to his satisfaction.

Officials in both states indicated they were hopeful the worst was behind them.

The original bill "gave us a black eye. This bill ices it," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas. "We still need some Tylenol."

Indiana and Arkansas are now among 21 states with comparable laws on the books. More than a dozen states are considering similar proposals, but the backlash has given them pause.

Georgia lawmakers adjourned the final day of the legislative session Thursday without taking a vote on a divisive bill, leaving the measure dead for the year. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola warned lawmakers against approving "any legislation that discriminates."

In North Carolina, the House speaker said deliberations over a bill would be slowed to give lawmakers time to determine if the legislation would harm the state's economy.

A proposed amendment to the Texas Constitution would prohibit the government or any other entity from imposing burdens on religious freedom, potentially opening the door for businesses to refuse to serve gay people on religious grounds.


DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.


Associated Press writer Allen Reed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.