LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Wal-Mart on Tuesday criticized a "conscience protection" measure in the retail giant's home state that opponents say sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians, while Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson also expressed concerns about the legislation.
The proposal to prohibit state and local governments from imposing a "substantial burden" on someone's religious beliefs faced new resistance a day after Arkansas became the second state to bar cities and counties from expanding anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.
Bentonville-based Wal-Mart's criticism of the pending legislation was nearly identical to concerns it raised about the new law regarding local ordinances. The world's largest retailer includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.
"While HB1228 will not change how we treat our associates and operate our business, we feel this legislation is also counter to our core basic belief of respect for the individual and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state," Wal-Mart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement.
Hutchinson, a Republican, said earlier Tuesday he had reservations the House-backed "conscience protection" measure, but stopped short of saying whether he opposed it. Hutchinson said he has questions about how the measure would be applied.
"I can see a great deal of litigation coming out of this, and so we want to have a better understanding of it," Hutchinson told reporters.
The measure would ban any local or state laws or regulations that substantially burden 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 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 10 states are currently considering them. Hutchinson said he understands the desire to protect religious freedom, but said he needed more information on the bill's impact.
"Part of it is, if as a lawyer I can't get a good grasp of it one time through, then it makes me wonder how this is going to be interpreted by the courts," Hutchinson said. "It's just the unintended consequences of legislation is what you've got to look at very carefully."
Hutchinson's comments came a day after he allowed legislation to become law that bans local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents of the measure had urged Hutchinson to veto it after he said he was concerned about it infringing on local control.
Both bills were pushed in response to a Fayetteville ordinance that barred discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The city's voters repealed the ordinance in December.
Gay rights groups have shifted their attention to the "conscience protection" measure, calling it another thinly veiled attempt to endorse bias against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
"HB1228 is equally disturbing and allows any person to claim religious belief as their grounds for discriminatory acts," Kendra Johnson, state director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement issued Monday. "Simply put, state senators should erase it from the legislative agenda."
The measure was expected to go before a Senate panel on Wednesday. Its sponsor said he planned to talk with Hutchinson about his concerns.
"I know the bill real well and I know Asa, where he stands on the issue," Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said. "I think in the end he'll side with protecting people's religious freedom."
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