Arkansas House approves anti‑LGBT religious freedom bill, governor says he’ll sign it

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LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas lawmakers have given final approval to a religious-freedom bill that has drawn sharp criticism from opponents who say it opens the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The House voted Tuesday to approve the measure, which prohibits the state and local governments from infringing on a person’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” interest.

The measure was given final approval in a series of votes after the Republican-led House rejected efforts to send the bill back to committee to change it. It now heads to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will sign it into law.

If enacted, the move will make Arkansas the second state to enact such a law this year. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill last week.

In Little Rock, hundreds of people filled the Arkansas Capitol for a second day to protest the measure, holding signs that read “Hate is Not Holy” and “We are Open for Business for All Arkansans.”

“The reality is what we’re doing here is really not that remarkable,” Republican Bob Ballinger, the lawmaker behind Arkansas’ measure, told reporters. “I do understand it’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”

Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states.

Democrats said they had hoped to amend the proposal to make it clear the measure could not be used to deny services to someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

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“In Indiana, they can say we were not prepared for the backlash,” said Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker, who opposed the bill. “We don’t really have that luxury in Arkansas because we’ve had a real-time preview of what we’re up against because of what has happened in Indiana over the last week.”

In a letter released Tuesday, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola urged Hutchinson to veto the proposal, which he said would hurt the state’s economic-development efforts by sending “the message that some members of our community will have fewer protections than others. Our city and our state cannot be limited to only certain segments of society.”

The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, calling it “bad for business and bad for Arkansas.”

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas’ anti-discrimination protections. Last month, Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.

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