Senate OKs controversial ‘religious freedom’ law, Gov. Hutchinson to sign it

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 118 views 

A bill that supporters say will protect religious freedom and opponents say will allow for discrimination easily passed the Arkansas Senate on Friday (March 27). The 35-member body passed House Bill 1228 by a 24-7 margin.

The measure prevents state and local governments from taking actions that would violate a person’s religious beliefs unless a “compelling” interest can be shown. In theory, a caterer could invoke the law to not do business with a gay couple if it was against the business owner’s religious practices.

Senators from the Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith areas who voted for HB 1228 are:
• Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers;
• Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith;
• Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette;
• Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs;
• Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron;
• Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch; and
• Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale.

Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, was the only Senator from the Northwest Arkansas and Fort Smith areas who voted against HB 1228.

The only Republican in the Senate to vote against the bill was Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson of Benton. He is the nephew of Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Gov. Hutchinson said he supports the latest version of the bill, stating that it is “important that we balance religious freedom privileges” but adding that workplaces have to be “free from discrimination.”

“I think it’s a bill that puts a higher emphasis on religious freedom,” he said on Thursday, indicating he would sign it into law.

The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality, said the measure is creating a “newfound hostile business climate” in Arkansas and would be a detriment to recruiting high-tech companies to the state.

“Many of these companies have spoken out publicly in opposition to legislation like H.B. 1228,” noted HRC president Chad Griffin. “Many of them create the high-tech jobs you argue Arkansas hopes to attract every day.”

Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, opposed HB 1228. The company issued this statement to the media: “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.”

The group was also critical of another bill that became law earlier in the session without Gov. Hutchinson’s signature, SB 202. That law prohibits local anti-discrimination ordinances from being passed that include sexual orientation or gender identity. Hutchinson said he had reservations about the bill because it usurped local control.

One of those companies is Apple. Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted Friday that “Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana’s new law, and calling on Arkansas Gov. to veto the similar #HB1228.”

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence recently signed a religious freedom bill into law. According to a report by the Indianapolis Star, Indiana became the 20th state to enact a religious freedom law. Pence told the media that the bill “is not about legalizing discrimination.”

In a statement that followed his signing of the bill, Pence noted: “This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way in Indiana, I would have vetoed it. In fact, it does not even apply to disputes between private parties unless government action is involved. For more than twenty years, the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act has never undermined our nation's anti-discrimination laws, and it will not in Indiana.”

Nevertheless, officials with several groups and businesses have said they plan to rethink their activities in the state. Officials with the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, expressed concern about the law’s impact on events and their workforce. Officials with the National Football League also said they are “studying” the new law. The NFL holds its annual and high-profile scouting combine in Indianapolis.

Visit Indy, the group that negotiates for the use of the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium where the combine is held, opposed Indiana’s religious freedom bill.

Mark Benioff, CEO of San Francisco-based Salesforce, said his company has canceled programs that require employees or clients to travel to Indiana.

“We’re a major source of income and revenue to the state of Indiana, but we simply cannot support this kind of legislation,” Benioff said.

Yelp, a national company that provides a platform for user reviews of restaurants, shopping and other entertainment options, also opposes religious freedom laws that could open the door to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yelp CEO and co-founder Jeremy Stoppelman said such laws will eventually hurt a state’s economy.

“It is unconscionable to imagine that Yelp would create, maintain, or expand a significant business presence in any state that encouraged discrimination,” Stoppelman noted in a Politico story.

Also, a plan to build a monument honoring the Ten Commandments was approved by a House committee Friday morning, clearing the way for debate on the House floor. The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committee voted to approve Senate Bill 939, sponsored by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway.

Under the bill, a monument would be built, using private money, on the Capitol grounds. Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, who cosponsored the bill, said it was patterned after other states including Oklahoma.

The Secretary of State’s office would be in charge of permitting and arranging for the monument, which would be located near several other monuments on the grounds. Hammer was quick to point out that no state funding would be used for the project and that the monument would honor the text of the religious document.

Several people including Karen Seal and Jim Sewell spoke against the bill, saying it violated a belief in the separation of church and state. However, Paul Calvert spoke in favor of the bill saying that the state’s Constitution mentions “Almighty God” in its text.

The Senate overwhelmingly voted 27-3 to approve the bill, which now heads to the House floor.

The committee also approved a bill to study government restructuring in the state. The bill, Senate Bill 382, sponsored by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, would look at restructuring at least 125 state agencies into at least 10 state departments. The bill goes to the House floor.

Also, voters may be heading to the polls earlier than usual next year after the Senate approved a bill to change the date of the state’s presidential primary. The Senate voted 20-5 to approve Senate Bill 389, sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.

Under the bill, the presidential primary in the state would be held on the first Tuesday in March, or March 1 next year. Each political party in the state would be in charge of setting the qualification of candidates, as well as accepting and processing applications.

If approved, the bill would also set a Nov. 2-Feb. 22 period for candidates to file paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office.

There has been a push to move the state’s primary from May to March, due to two main issues. First, several states in the region including Tennessee and Mississippi are considering having their primaries around the same time in a so-called “SEC Primary” on Super Tuesday.

Also, two people with ties to the state – former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., and former Secretary of State and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY – are considering White House bids.

According to most experts, there are at least two dozen Republicans and a half-dozen Democrats who are looking at a run.

The bill now heads to the House.

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