‘Religious Freedom’ Bill Moves Forward

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 53 views 

Amendments to a bill that would prevent state actions that “substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion” passed the House Judiciary Committee Monday despite a heavy presence of opponents at the Capitol.

House Bill 1228 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, now goes to the full House. It had already passed both the House and the Senate, but was returned to the Judiciary Committee to concur three minor amendments passed in the Senate. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he will sign the bill.

Ballinger stoically left the committee meeting with a security escort as a crowd of protestors outside the room shouted in unison, “Shame on you!” The pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign held a protest on the Capitol steps afterwards and then lined both sides of the stairs leading to the House chamber prior to the House convening at 1:30 p.m. Most representatives took a different path.

HB 1228 states that, “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the substantial burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the substantial burden to the person’s exercise of religion in this particular instance is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The amendments passed, 11-5, with three committee members not voting.

Afterwards, Ballinger told reporters, “No one wants to have people mad and upset at them, so I don’t like that part. The idea of people coming up here and showing up to let their opinion be known about their government, I love it.”

The bill passed the House, 72-20, on Feb. 13 and the Senate, 24-7, on March 27. But it became the subject of national attention along with a similar law passed in Indiana. The Human Rights Campaign ran a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News, a Silicon Valley newspaper, criticizing the bill in an effort to discourage companies from doing business in Arkansas. Apple CEO Tim Cook called on Hutchinson to veto the legislation.

Ballinger argued that President Clinton signed a federal version of the law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in 1993. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal law did not apply to states, 19 states then passed similar laws, according to Politifact. President Obama voted for an Illinois version of the law as a state senator.

Ballinger said that Arkansas has “a reduced level of protection for people’s religious liberties” compared to the federal government, other states and what existed previously. He said the bill only applies to state actions.

“When people realize what the bill really is, most people are supportive of it, but it’s become a symbol for something else, and I understand that,” he told reporters. He later added, “I don’t hate anybody. You know, that’s a part of who I am. I care about everybody and love everyone, and I hate the fact that this is coming up this way, but I can’t back down because people are using this as kind of a tool.”

The amendments concurred on Monday said that complying with civil rights law is a compelling governmental interest, that the legislative intent is to protect religious liberty consistent with federal law, and that the intent of the bill is to apply only to state actions.

Ballinger said the law would allow Arkansas to have the same laws as other states and is consistent with federal law. Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, disputed that assertion. She said the bill did not define religion, so actions could be defined by a “religion of one.” She said people with “odd beliefs” would be able to use the law to bring suit.

“Right now as I read this bill, Tony Alamo would be allowed to have his cult in Arkansas,” she said.

When Rep. Eddie Armstrong, D-North Little Rock, asked if the bill could lead to a “slippery slope” creating a new form of discrimination, Ballinger said it would not, resulting in derisive laughter from some in the crowded committee room. Armstrong said similar laws in the name of religion in the past had been used to discriminate against African-Americans.

“Our state continues to get this dark cloud cascaded over it sometimes because of efforts such as this,” Armstrong said.

Asked by Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, if the bill could include a “non-discrimination disclaimer,” Ballinger said it would be hard to define that term, and that such a provision should be included in a different bill.

The committee also passed two concurring amendments to House Bill 1676 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, which prohibits the practice of “rehoming” an adopted child. The practice came to light after an Arkansas Times report revealed that Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, had sent two adopted daughters to live with a former employee of his day care, who then sexually abused one of them. The measure now goes to the House.