LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A proposal to prevent state and local governments from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs failed before an Arkansas legislative panel Wednesday after facing mounting criticism that it was an attempt to justify discriminating against gays and lesbians.
The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the “conscience protection” measure, a day after retail giant Walmart said the measure sent the wrong message about its home state and Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he had reservations about the bill.
It was a victory for gay rights groups, days after Hutchinson allowed separate legislation to become law that bans local governments from expanding anti-discrimination protections to include sexual orientation or gender identity.
Supporters said they may later bring back the “conscience protection” proposal, which would ban any local or state laws or regulations that substantially burden religious beliefs unless a “compelling governmental interest” is proven. The bill, if enacted, would strengthen any case of a person suing the government if that person could prove their religious beliefs were infringed upon.
The legislation is patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states have similar laws and 10 states are currently considering them.
Article continues below“If the state is going to infringe that right to believe, they’ve got to have a good reason to do that,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville told the panel.
Opponents called the measure a thinly veiled way to allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community. One critic compared it to the 19th century U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld racial segregation of public facilities under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
“It is 1896 old, Plessy v. Ferguson, and it is wicked, and for that reason I ask you to please, please not pass it,” Wendell Griffen, a Pulaski County circuit judge and Baptist pastor, told the panel.