Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said he won’t sign a religious-freedom law that opponents said sanctions discrimination against gays and lesbians, following pressure from businesses concerned the measure would sully the state’s reputation.
Hutchinson, a Republican, said Wednesday he’s asking the legislature to revise the bill so that it includes stronger protections against discrimination and more closely mirrors a federal law on the books since 1993. The decision came a day after Indiana Governor Mike Pence sought to quell an outcry over a similar measure that led to calls to boycott his state.
“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Hutchinson, 64, said during a press conference at the state capitol in Little Rock. “The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split.”
Apple Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and business groups have fought religious-freedom bills advanced in statehouses, saying they could damage economies and complicate efforts to attract workers. That’s created a rift with Republicans pushing legislation backed by religious groups that are among the party’s key constituencies.
The proposed law in Arkansas, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, barred state and local governments, or individuals, from infringing on citizens’ religious beliefs without a compelling reason. In 16 states, bills have been introduced to create or expand on versions of the law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Opponents say the laws would protect businesses that turn same-sex couples away. Indiana’s Pence said Tuesday that opponents are misreading the measure he signed last week, even as he pushed the legislature to clarify that it doesn’t condone bigotry.
“This legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier state,” he said. “This law does not give anyone a license to deny services to gay and lesbian couples.”
Hutchinson had previously indicated he would sign the bill, which received final approval from lawmakers Tuesday. He reversed course following pressure from Wal-Mart, the Bentonville-based company that’s his state’s largest private employer. Others, including his son, Seth, also pressed him to oppose it.
“We want to be known as a state that does not discriminate, but understands tolerance,” Hutchinson said.
On Wednesday, the state Senate acted on the governor’s request and approved a measure similar to the federal law, according to the New York Times. That bill now goes to the House.
Business opposition may stall efforts to pass related laws in other Republican-led states, including North Carolina and Michigan. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory said in a radio interview Monday that he’s not inclined to sign a bill that’s been proposed there. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wouldn’t support his state’s measure unless it specifically protects the civil rights of gays and lesbians, said spokeswoman Sara Wurfel.
More than three dozen technology-industry executives, including PayPal co-founder Max Levchin and Salesforce.com Inc. Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff, on Wednesday urged lawmakers protect gays and lesbians in response to the proposed religious-freedom laws.
In Arkansas, businesses applauded Hutchinson’s decision.
“We commend Governor Hutchinson and legislative leaders for reconsidering,” Wal-Mart said in a statement on its Twitter feed. “We clearly support the importance of religious freedom and encourage the legislature to make certain any legislation does not encourage discrimination.”
The controversy comes as federal courts are overturning state-approved gay-marriage bans.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments this year in a case that may legalize the unions nationwide. They are already allowed in 37 states.
“Some people in the religious community who are unnerved by the court rulings have latched onto religious freedom restoration acts as a way to maintain, in their view, the status quo,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law.
The increase in same-sex marriage has accompanied a shift in the views of Americans. A Gallup poll last year found that 55 percent were in favor of recognizing the unions, twice the share who said that when the question was first posed in 1996.
Indiana’s Pence was besieged by pressure from businesses, including Indiana-based Eli Lilly & Co., Anthem Inc. and Angie’s List Inc., before he asked lawmakers to revise the law.
“We’ve got a perception problem here,” he said. “We intend to correct that.”