Arkansas Moves to Revise Legislation
as Concerns of Religion and Gay Rights Intensify
Welcome to another day in my life. Today is Saturday and I hope you are having a beary safe and great start to your weekend. Dab the AIDS Bear and I have been keeping up on the latest news.
If you have been watching the news, you know a number of states are trying to pass new laws which in part would make it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Now we are starting to see how some of those might fail.
Facing a backlash from businesses and gay rights advocates, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas on Wednesday urged lawmakers to rework legislation billed as a religious freedom measure to ensure that it mirrors federal law.
Mr. Hutchinson became the second Republican governor in two days to call for changes to a measure he had previously supported. Speaking to reporters in an ornate conference room at the State Capitol, Mr. Hutchinson said he understood the divisions in Arkansas and across the nation over same-sex marriage and that his own son, Seth, had asked him to veto the bill, which critics say could allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against gay men and lesbians.
“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” he said. What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance,” he added. “Secondly, we make sure that we communicate we’re not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future.”
Besides asking for the bill to be recalled and amended, Mr. Hutchinson said he was considering issuing an executive order “protecting against discrimination” within the state government.
By late Wednesday, after a day of meetings among lawmakers and multiple revisions, the State Senate voted 26 to 6 to approve a bill closely mirroring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as the governor had requested. The bill will go to the House for a vote that is expected Thursday.
The bill, as well as a similar one passed in Indiana, would allow religious parties as well as small businesses and larger corporations if they are substantially owned by members with strong religious convictions, to claim exemptions from government mandates. While the bills do not mention gays or discrimination, some supporters have made clear that their intent is to protect Christian individuals and businesses, including caterers and florists, who do not want to provide services to same-sex couples. The measures are more far-ranging than somewhat similar federal legislation passed in 1993, and they have sparked an outcry from business and gay rights groups.
As Arkansas moved to change the bill, lawmakers in Indiana were also racing on Wednesday to add a provision to a similar law there that would satisfy that law’s critics. With the N.C.A.A. Final Four arriving in Indianapolis this weekend, Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, has said he wants “a fix” by week’s end that will make clear that the state’s new law does not give businesses the right to deny services to anyone, including gay men and lesbians.
For hours on Wednesday, leaders in Indiana’s Republican-dominated legislature met behind closed doors with members of the business community and others attempting to draft new language. The intent, some involved in the revisions said, was to explicitly note that the law could not be used to discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation. The hope, some said, was to hurry the addition through both chambers as early as Thursday, attached to an unrelated bill as a way to speed matters along.
Yet significant obstacles remain. Democrats have said they want a repeal of the entire law and some conservatives have said they will oppose any watered-down measure. The revisions had not been completed as of late Wednesday.
The controversy over the bills left two Republican governors caught between the moderate, business wing of their party and its social conservative base. Mr. Pence signed the Indiana version last week — only, he admitted, to be caught by surprise by the backlash. Mr. Hutchinson, less than three months into his term, had previously said he would sign a measure.
But Mr. Hutchinson’s even tone on Wednesday was strikingly different from the defensive approach of Mr. Pence, who blamed “reckless reporting” and “gross mischaracterizations” for his state’s problems.
In a speech of vintage Arkansas pragmatism, Mr. Hutchinson spoke of a country divided over same-sex marriage and how it clashed with the religious beliefs of others. “This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “But these are not ordinary times.”
Some critics of the bill welcomed Mr. Hutchinson’s plan. Walmart, which had denounced the law, commended the governor in a brief statement, while Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, who was at the Capitol on Wednesday, expressed “cautious optimism.”
Proponents of the bill were less positive.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr. Hutchinson’s statement, Jerry Cox, the president of the Arkansas-based Family Council, a conservative lobbing group, was more succinct: “No bill or no amendment, that’s our position right now.”
Already in his young term, Mr. Hutchinson, who was previously a United States representative and a federal official, has navigated such partisan topics as Medicaid expansion and Common Core and arrived at solutions that, at least in the short term, left most people satisfied.
“He’s the MacGyver of American politics,” said Bill Vickery, a lobbyist in Little Rock, referring to the television character famous for his ability to defuse bombs.
The governor was flanked at the news conference by Jonathan Dismang, the president pro tem of the Senate, and Jeremy Gillam, the House speaker, both Republicans who have reputations for moderate pragmatism. Both expressed support for the governor but acknowledged the work it would take for the members of their chambers, which have Republican majorities, to go along.
“I think we’ll give it a serious look,” said Representative Kenneth Bragg, the House majority leader. “I think they just want assurance that adopting the federal statue isn’t going to weaken too much of what we did in our state version. That’s the key.”
There were several sections in Arkansas’s original bill that departed from the federal law. It broadened the category of those who could cite religious faith to claim protection from a law or regulation. Corporations and institutions — and not just individuals and family businesses — could make that claim under the original legislation. The bill also, according to legal experts, allowed people to assert that their religious freedom was being violated in conflicts in which the government was not directly involved, such as between a private business and a customer.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Representative Bob Ballinger, had insisted throughout the process that the measure did reflect the federal law, though it incorporated the jurisprudence of intervening years, such as the Supreme Court’s decision exempting the company Hobby Lobby from complying with a government mandate to cover contraceptives for employees.
But the senator who presented the bill in his chamber, Bart Hester, contradicted that. “Our bill certainly does not mirror to the federal R.F.R.A.,” he said on Wednesday, using the acronym for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. “That was intentional.”
The Republican turnaround was striking. Just this week, before the bill was passed by the House, Representative Camille Bennett proposed that the bill be sent back to committee to make it more in line with the federal version. Her proposal was shot down 62 to 26.
Mr. Hutchinson at the same time was working behind the scenes all that day to defuse the growing opposition, meeting with lawmakers and fielding potential changes that would assuage critics.
“He was asking for advice and suggestions for how to mitigate the damage and move forward in a constructive way,” said Representative Warwick Sabin, a Democrat, who throughout the day crafted language for an amendment or a separate bill that he sent to the governor’s staff. But Mr. Ballinger was not interested in any amendments, Mr. Sabin said, and “it appeared that the support was not there” for a separate anti-discrimination law.
It was on Wednesday morning that the plan was circulated among legislators to revise the bill so it was more in line with the federal law. That evening, it appeared to be working, despite the dim prospects only hours before.
“This is politics,” Mr. Hester said. “Environments change in an afternoon.”
I look forward to the day when all Americans have the same rights. But until then, we have to fight and keep up the work to make this a reality.
Hope all of you have a beary safe and great Saturday!
Until we meet again; here's wishing you health, hope, happiness and just enough.
big bear hug,