Lawmakers in Arkansas and Indiana passed legislation Thursday that they hoped would quiet the national uproar over new religious objections laws that opponents say are designed to offer a legal defense for anti-gay discrimination.
The Arkansas House voted 76-17 to pass a revised religious objections measure after Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked for changes in the wake of mounting criticism that a previous bill endorsed discrimination against gays and lesbians. The legislation was headed to Hutchinson, whose office said he planned to sign it into law.
The measure is similar to a bill sent to the governor earlier this week, but Hutchinson said he wanted it revised to more closely mirror a 1993 federal law. Supporters of the compromise bill say it addresses concerns that the original proposal was discriminatory.
In Indiana, the House and Senate approved revisions to a law signed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence last week after a widespread outcry from businesses and gay-rights groups. Pence approved the language Thursday, marking the first time sexual orientation and gender identity are mentioned in state statute.
The Indiana amendment prohibits service providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.
The measure exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with nonprofit religious organizations.
House Speaker Brian Bosma said the agreement sends a “very strong statement” that the state will not tolerate discrimination.
The law “cannot be used to discriminate against anyone,” he said.
Business leaders, many of whom had opposed the law or canceled travel to the state because of it, called the amendment a good first step but said more work needs to be done. Gay-rights groups noted that Indiana still does not include the LGBT community as a protected class in its civil-rights law, but Bosma said lawmakers met with representatives of the gay community and said they believed the new language addressed many of their concerns.
Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, now a senior vice president at drugmaker Eli Lilly, praised the agreement but noted that work needs to be done to repair the damage done to the state’s image.
“The healing needs to begin right now,” he said.
Democratic leaders said the proposed amendment didn’t go far enough and repeated their calls to repeal the law.
“I want to hear somebody say we made a grave mistake, and we caused the state tremendous embarrassment that will take months, if not years, to repair,” House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said. “I want to hear one of the proponents ‘fess up, because the healing cannot begin until that happens. The solution is simple. Repeal this law.”
The lawmaker behind the original Arkansas proposal said he backed the changes.
“We’re going to allow a person to believe what they want to believe without the state coming in and burdening that unless they’ve got a good reason to do so,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger told the House Judiciary Committee.
Like Pence, Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state’s largest employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart. Businesses called the bill discriminatory and said it would hurt Arkansas’ image. Hutchinson noted that his own son, Seth, had signed a petition urging him to veto the bill.
Conservative groups said they would still prefer that Hutchinson sign the original bill, but they grudgingly backed the compromise measure.
“The bill that’s on the governor’s desk is the Rolls Royce of religious freedom bills. It is a very good bill,” said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. “The bill that just passed ... is a Cadillac.”
The revised Arkansas measure only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals, and supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals. Opponents said they believed the measure still needs explicit anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana’s proposal.
The original bill “gave us a black eye. This bill ices it,” said Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas. “We still need some Tylenol.”
As originally passed, neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentioned gays and lesbians. But opponents have voiced concern that the language contained in them could offer a legal defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.
Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, with some differences. Indiana and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.
Associated Press writer Allen Reed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.