Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a religious freedom measure into law on Thursday after state lawmakers overhauled their proposal so that it mirrors the federal law.
In the wake of intense backlash against a similar law in Indiana, first-term Republican governor had rejected the first version Arkansas lawmakers had sent to his desk, instead asking for two tweaks so there would be no daylight between his state’s law and the one President Bill Clinton signed in 1993.
“I think it’s sending the right signal, the way this has been resolved, to the world and the country that Arkansas understands the diversity of our culture and workforce but also the importance of balancing that with our sincerely held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said Thursday afternoon.
Hutchinson’s decision to sign the law follows an uproar in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence has faced pressure from businesses, sports associations like the NCAA and popular culture figures to backtrack on a similar religious freedom law he signed last week. In Arkansas, was Wal-Mart applying the most pressure.
Hutchinson earlier this week asked lawmakers to recall the law that the Arkansas House had given final approval on Tuesday — or to send him follow-up legislation that makes the changes he requested.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson said, he’s considering signing an executive order that bars discrimination among the state’s workforce.
“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said then. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”
Case in point, Hutchinson said: His son Seth signed a petition asking him to veto the bill — and also gave his father permission to tell reporters he’d done so.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that it was a “legitimate question to ask” whether someone who “strongly believes that gay marriage is not consistent with her personal conscience” should be “compelled by law” to offer services to gay couples.
“I think that’s a reasonable question to ask, and I don’t think we should call that woman bigoted or hateful or that we should impose criminal, or even civil fines,” he said during an interview on “The Situation Room.”
He also suggested the controversy surrounding the bill was overblown, and urged viewers to “have a sense of perspective about our priorities.”
Cotton, a prominent GOP hawk who’s led the charge against the developing nuclear deal with Iran, said preventing a nuclear-armed Iran was a more important priority for the U.S.
Republican Arkansas state Sen. Bart Hester also defended the bill in an interview on CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper — though he didn’t directly answer questions about whether the law would allow discrimination.
He said the measure would mean Arkansas residents “would not have to perform a message that they don’t agree with” — and when Tapper asked if that would include Christian florists, bakers and photographers who refused to participate in a same-sex wedding, Hester indicated he agreed.
“That’s for the individual to decide for themselves,” Hester said.
“They cannot discriminate against an individual,” he said. “They can discriminate against a message that they don’t feel comfortable with.”
As a counter, Hester said: “I wouldn’t ask a Jewish baker to put a Nazi swastika on a cake. That wouldn’t be fair either.”
The topic of religious freedom laws could be tricky for 2016 Republican candidates who all rushed to Pence’s defense.
Likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seized on the issue, urging Hutchinson to veto the bill.
The perils Arkansas faces were made clear Tuesday morning when Pence insisted he’d “fix” Indiana’s law to make sure it doesn’t allow businesses like Christian florists or bakers to turn away gay and lesbian customers — which the bill’s conservative supporters had said was one of their chief goals.
“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” Pence said.
Following Indiana, Arkansas has become the second of what could be a spate of states to add religious freedom laws to their books in 2015. There are 14 other states considering similar proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Advocates of the measures insist they’re simply mimicking what the federal government did under Clinton and what 19 other states had already done.
But the context has changed. The Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage across the United States — and social conservatives have come to view religious freedom laws as the next frontier in the culture clash over gay rights.
And Indiana’s fight exposed another problem: Gays and lesbians lack the shield of a state anti-discrimination law that includes protections based on sexual orientation — and Pence has said he’s not interested in changing that.
Making social conservatives’ case harder is the intense opposition from business communities. In Arkansas, home-state giant Wal-Mart was a leading critic of the religious freedom bill.
The other states where religious freedom bills have been introduced are Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Those efforts have stalled, though, in North Carolina and Georgia.
A Georgia bill hit a roadblock when a House member successfully amended anti-discrimination language into it.