Arkansas Governor Refuses to Sign State Religious Freedom Restoration Act Without Changes

LITTLE ROCK — The governor of Arkansas says that he won’t sign the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in light of its current language, just a day after the legislature sent the bill to his desk.

H.B. 1228 passed the Arkansas House of Representatives 67-21 on Tuesday, sending the legislation to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson for signing.

“It is the intent of the General Assembly to: (1) Ensure that in all cases in which state action substantially burdens the exercise of religion strict scrutiny is applied; (2) Provide a claim or defense to a person whose exercise of religion is substantially burdened by state action; and (3) Implement Article 2, § 24, of the Arkansas Constitution, which states that ‘[N]o human authority can, in any case or manner whatsoever, control or interfere with the right of conscience,'” it reads in part.

It then provides general language surrounding prohibiting government action from being used to “substantially burden” the First Amendment religious rights of citizens.

“A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion, even if the substantial burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless it is demonstrated that applying the substantial burden to the person’s exercise of religion in this particular instance: (1) Is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) Is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,” the legislation declares.

However, as in Indiana, where that state’s RFRA was signed into law last week to mirror the federal RFRA signed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993, the bill has faced opposition from those who claim that the legislation pertains to homosexuality.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillion released a statement this week calling for Hutchinson to veto the RFRA, contending that it is antithetical to the company’s beliefs on persons attracted to those of the same sex.

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“Today’s passage of H.B. 1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” he wrote.

Walmart’s corporate headquarters are located in Bentonvillle, Ark.

But sponsor Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) told the Washington Post that he believes that the RFRA, which has been passed in 20 other states, has been made into an issue about homosexuality when sexual behavior—or any particular issue—is not mentioned in the legislation.

“This legislation doesn’t allow anybody to discriminate against anybody,” he stated on Tuesday. “The bill does just the opposite. It focuses on the civil rights of people believing what they want to believe, and not letting the government interfere with that. … That should be the focus of this bill, without being muddied by a bunch of other things.”

Hutchinson originally stated that he would sign the bill into law, but on Wednesday, he sent the legislation back to lawmakers, requesting that changes be made to the current language.

“It has been my intention all along to have House Bill 1228 to mirror the federal act,” he said in a statement. “The bill that is on my desk at the present time does not … mirror the federal law.”

Therefore, Hutchinson explained that he has now “asked leaders in the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it mirrors the federal religious act.” He did not specify exactly what language needed to be altered or added other than to ensure that it is akin to the federal RFRA.

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times,” he remarked. “I want to make it clear that Arkansas wants to be a place of tolerance.”

Hutchinson identifies as a Southern Baptist, and is a former alumnus of Bob Jones University.

A similar religious freedom bill has been presented to lawmakers in North Carolina, where it likewise is facing opposition. American Airlines has already spoken against the legislation, which has yet to come up for a vote in both houses.

“Laws like this will harm the economies of the states in which they are enacted, and would ultimately be a step in the wrong direction for a society that seeks tolerance, peace and prosperity for all,” American Airines Spokesperson Michelle Mohr told the Charlotte Observer.

According to reports, Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is expected to veto the bill should it reach his desk. He told local radio station WFAE this week that the bill “makes no sense,” and that he doesn’t see the need for the legislation.

“What is the problem they’re trying to solve?” McCrory said. “I haven’t seen it at this point in time.”

But Mark Harris, a Charlotte pastor who ran for the Senate last year, told reporters that he was “highly disappointed” in McCrory, opining that the bill “would protect Christians from governments eager to advance the agenda that sexual rights are superior to religious liberty.”

The site Red State made similar remarks on Wednesday, stating that homosexual advocates are using the bill as a way to ensure that Christians are forced to be partakers in another man’s sins (1 Timothy 5:22; Ephesians 5:7). While homosexuals are coming out of the closet, the article implies, Christians are being forced into the closet—or behind the four walls of their churches.

“The homosexual lobby is not interested in tolerance. They are not even interested in acceptance. They have had both for decades,” writer “Streiff” commented. “What they are after is celebration and the eradication of Christian (or any other religion’s) moral theology from public discussion. They are focused on driving religion into a space confined to a single building for a hour or so each week.”

“The objection is not about discrimination because no sane person could think that is even a potential issue,” he said. “The objection is that Christians can’t be sued and bullied into celebrating homosexuality.”

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