Indiana, Arkansas Change Religion Laws Over Gay-Rights Furor

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Indiana and Arkansas revised religious-protection laws in hopes of appeasing businesses that said the measures allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The swift action in the two states came as growing numbers of corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Eli Lilly & Co., joined forces with gay and lesbian advocacy groups to denounce the laws.

Indiana Governor Mike Pence Thursday signed a bill that bars businesses from refusing to serve gays and lesbians on religious grounds, acting less than two hours after it cleared the legislature. Pence pushed for the step to quell a furor over the law he signed last week.

“It is causing real harm to real people right now in our state,” said Brian Bosma, the Republican speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. “I’m talking about commerce in a major, major way. So we had to be prompt. We had to be swift.”

In Arkansas, the House of Representatives gave final approval to a revised bill, modeled on a 1993 federal law, that prevents the government from infringing upon citizens’ religious beliefs. Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson signed it moments later.

Balancing Beliefs

The enactment came a day after Hutchinson rejected a different version of the legislation, which businesses including Wal-Mart said would harm the state by giving it a reputation for intolerance. Some critics aren’t entirely satisfied because they say it still lacks a provision to ensure the law isn’t used to deny service to gays.

“Arkansas understands the diversity of our culture and our workforce, but also the importance of balancing that with our sincerely held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said during a bill signing Thursday.

The religious-freedom measures in both states stoked a national controversy, with similar bills proposed in 16 states, including North Carolina and Michigan. Fourteen of them are controlled by Republicans.

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, said in a March 30 radio interview that he wouldn’t sign one that’s before the Republican legislature.

“What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” asked McCrory on radio station WFAE in Charlotte.

Government Overreach

To the laws’ supporters, it’s to protect the practice of religious liberty from the overreach of government. Eric Miller, executive director of Advance America, an Indianapolis nonprofit that describes itself as pro-family and pro-church, said the proposed changes to the Indiana law would require Christian bakers, florists and photographers to participate in same-sex weddings.

“You don’t want to harm Hoosier businesses with legislation because of a perception problem,” Miller said during testimony to the Indiana legislature Thursday.

Intense lobbying from companies including Apple Inc., Wal-Mart and Fiat Chrysler has slowed the drive to enact the religious-freedom laws.

The threat of boycotts added to the pressure. Software maker Salesforce.com Inc. suspended some travel to Indiana after the law was passed. The University of Connecticut’s basketball coach and staff are boycotting the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Final Four tournament in Indianapolis this weekend. The team was eliminated in an earlier round.

Damage Fixed

Moody’s Investors Service on Thursday said the economic fallout had threatened the state’s economy and Indianapolis’s revenue from tourism.

The Indiana legislature’s explicit endorsement of gay rights was praised by some businesses. Salesforce Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff said in a Twitter post that it is “an important 1st step.”

“The damage has been fixed, and a door is open to the future,” he wrote.

Angie’s List Inc., the Indianapolis-based consumer-review website, however, said the legislature isn’t going far enough.

“Employers in most of the state of Indiana can fire a person simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning,” Bill Oesterle, chief executive officer of Angie’s List, said in an e-mailed statement. “That’s just not right and that’s the real issue here.”

Indiana’s Pence denied that the law he signed last week provides legal cover for bigotry, and said in a statement Thursday that it had “become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation.”

“There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first,” Pence said. “Resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.’”

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