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Arkansas Senate approves anti-LGBT religious protection bill

Arkansas state capitol in Little Rock.
Arkansas state capitol in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas inched closer Friday toward becoming the second state this year to adopt a law that critics say would sanction discrimination against LGBT individuals, with the state Senate approving a religious protection bill.

The bill, approved by the Senate 24-7, prevents state and local government from taking any action that substantially burdens someone’s religious beliefs unless a “compelling” interest is proven. The measure heads for a final vote next week in the House, which has already approved an initial version. The proposal faces an easy path forward, because Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll sign it into law.

One of the lawmakers behind the proposal said he didn’t believe the measure would lead to widespread discrimination.

“You certainly cannot legislate meanness in certain people, and people are going to be mean whether we have this law or not,” Republican Sen. Bart Hester told reporters after the vote.

But opponents have called it a thinly-veiled effort to endorse bias against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, with one lawmaker comparing it to the religious grounds used to endorse racial segregation and slavery.

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“Having grown up in the South all my life, I know that religious freedom has meant that slavery was OK, it has meant that Jim Crow was OK, it has meant that it was OK to keep people from achieving that which they deserved,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock said before the vote. “It is impossible for me having suffered from that religious freedom in a negative way to fail to say that we are better than this.”

Before the bill reaches the governor’s desk, the House must agree to amendments that were made that supporters say are aimed at addressing concerns the measure could open the door to discrimination. But opponents of the bill say the changes are little more than cosmetic.

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