Arkansas Backs Religious-Rights Law as Indiana Fights Outcry

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Indiana Gov. Pence's News Conference in Two Minutes

Arkansas lawmakers passed a bill that critics said sanctions discrimination against gays, voting just hours after Indiana Governor Mike Pence tried to quell an outcry over a similar religious-freedom measure.

Developments in the states have aroused opposition from corporate executives, gay-rights groups and Democrats who say religion is being used as cover for bigotry.

“I’m very concerned about it passing,” said Clarke Tucker, a Democratic Arkansas representative who voted against the bill. “We’ve seen what’s happened in Indiana and the economic impact it’s had in that state and I’m concerned about the economic impact it could have in Arkansas.”

The controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as it is known, 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, which have already been 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.

“It’s been glommed onto at a time of great social change,” she said. “What you have is this incessant, ongoing culture war.”

Perception Problem

Arkansas and Indiana embody the confrontation, with Republican legislatures and governors approving the measures. The laws bar state and local governments from infringing on citizens’ religious beliefs without a compelling reason, which opponents say would protect businesses that turn same-sex couples away on faith-based grounds.

Indiana Governor Pence denied that the law permits such discrimination, saying he would push the legislature to clarify a measure that’s been mischaracterized.

“We’ve got a perception problem here,” Pence said during a news conference at the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday. “We intend to correct that.”

While a similar bill has been proposed in North Carolina, the tempest that erupted in Indiana may leave some lawmakers wary. Representative Tim Moore, the Republican speaker of the House, would need to be assured that the law wouldn’t undermine efforts to foster growth in the economy, said Mollie Young, his spokeswoman.

Hurting Brand

“His top priority is economic development and job creation,” she said. “He would need to be convinced that it would have a positive impact on North Carolina as a whole and it wouldn’t hurt its brand.”

The vote by the Arkansas House of Representatives sent the legislation to Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson. A spokesman for Hutchinson, J.R. Davis, said the governor plans to sign it Wednesday.

Arkansas Representative Bob Ballinger, a Republican who backed that state’s bill, said he doesn’t expect a reaction similar to the backlash in Indiana.

“I think there’s a lot of people with a whole lot of passion and a lot of concern,” Ballinger said. “In the end, things will blow over and we’ll be back to business as usual.”

Wal-Mart Reacts

The Arkansas business community is urging the governor to veto the bill. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that it’s “bad for businesses and bad for Arkansas.” Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is based in Bentonville, also criticized the proposed law.

Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a statement on the company’s Twitter feed that it “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

The vote in Arkansas followed the outcry over Indiana’s change. Apple Inc. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, who is openly gay, wrote in a Twitter post on Friday that his company was “deeply disappointed in Indiana’s new law.” He called on Hutchinson to veto the Arkansas measure.

“Around the world, we strive to treat every customer the same -- regardless of where they come from, how they worship or who they love,” Cook wrote in a subsequent post.

Misunderstood Law

Pence, who is among potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates, said the law has been misconstrued, resulting in a “smear” against the people of Indiana. He wants legislative action by the end of the week to address the criticism.

“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.”

Pressure has been building in Indiana to resolve what Pence repeatedly called a perception problem. The Indianapolis Star, the state’s largest newspaper, ran a front-page editorial under a screaming three-word headline: “Fix This Now.”

The governors of New York, Connecticut and Washington said they’d ban state-funded travel to Indiana. On Monday, alternative rock band Wilco canceled its May 7 show at the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis. “Hope to get back to the Hoosier State someday soon, when this odious measure is repealed,” the band said in a Facebook post.

“The right and decent thing for them to do is to protect in law both the religious communities and gays and lesbians from discrimination,” said Wilson, the University of Illinois law professor. “That’s what they should have done.”

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