Fight over ‘license to discriminate’ religious freedom bills shifts to Arkansas

Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, center, cheers with protesters outside of the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015. Danny Johnston, AP

Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, center, cheers with protesters outside of the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015.Danny Johnston, AP

Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, center, cheers with protesters outside of the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The fight over religious objection proposals facing increasing criticism from businesses and advocates who call them a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians has shifted toward Arkansas, which was poised to become the second state this year to enact such a measure.

A final vote could come as early as Tuesday in the state House on the proposal that would prohibit state and local government from infringing on someone’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” reason. Unlike Indiana – where Republicans were working on adding language to clarify the state’s recently enacted law after a firestorm of protests – Arkansas lawmakers said they weren’t seeking to modify the measure.

“There’s not really any place to make any changes now,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said about his proposal. “If there are questions in two years we can fix it.”

Hundreds of protesters filled Arkansas’ Capitol to oppose the measure, holding signs that read “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease,” and chanting “Shame on You” at Ballinger after the measure was endorsed by a House committee.

“I believe that many people will want to flee the state and many people will want to avoid our state,” said Rita Jernigan, a protester and one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas’ gay marriage ban. “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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The protests echo the backlash in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill into law last week. Some companies and organizations have canceled future travel to Indiana or halted expansion plans in the state, and Republican legislative leaders said they are working on adding language to Indiana’s law to make it clear that the measure does not allow discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

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