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Arkansas House panel advances ‘religious freedom’ bill cast as anti-LGBT

Arkansas House panel advances ‘religious freedom’ bill cast as anti-LGBT

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Opponents of an Arkansas “religious freedom” measure that they say will allow widespread discrimination against LGBT individuals filled the state Capitol on Monday to protest the bill as it neared a final vote.

The GOP-heavy House Judiciary Committee endorsed an amended version of the proposal, which would prohibit state and local government from infringing upon someone’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” government interest. The House could take up the measure as soon as Tuesday.

Holding signs that read “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease,” protesters chanted “Shame on You” at the lawmaker behind the proposal.

“This is not nearly as exciting a law change as what I think a lot of people think it is,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville told the panel before the vote. “However, what it does is it does create a situation where we can protect people’s religious practices, let people believe what they want to believe.”

If enacted, Arkansas would become the second state to adopt such a law change this year.

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Indiana has been widely criticized by businesses and organizations since Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure into law last week. Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states.

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week said he’d sign the measure into law, and his office said Monday his position hadn’t changed.

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Hutchinson had expressed reservations about unintended consequences about an earlier version of the bill, but said changes have addressed those concerns.

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.

Opponents have called the amendments little more than cosmetic changes and have stepped up their protests against the measure, holding rallies at the Capitol and outside the governor’s mansion.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group, has run ads in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson hopes to attract to the state, and Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend opposing Arkansas and Indiana’s measures.

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The proposal advanced Monday on an 11-5 vote, with Republican Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers joining four Democrats to oppose it.

The protesters included Rita and Pam Jernigan, the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ gay marriage ban. U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker struck down an amendment and state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, but suspended her ruling while it’s on appeal.

“I believe that many people will want to flee the state and many people will want to avoid our state,” Rita Jernigan said. “I think it will hit us hard everywhere. I feel like we’re moving backwards rather than being a progressive state.”

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