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Arkansas governor: No urgent need for anti-discrimination order

Arkansas governor: No urgent need for anti-discrimination order
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) Danny Johnston, AP

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he doesn’t see an urgent need to expand workplace anti-discrimination protections for gay and lesbian state employees after lawmakers reworked a religious objections measure to address concerns it was discriminatory.

The Republican governor told reporters he floated the idea of such an order as an alternative in case lawmakers didn’t agree to his request to revise a bill prohibiting state and local government from infringing on someone’s religious beliefs without a compelling reason. Hutchinson signed a compromise version of the bill after it was changed to more closely mirror a 1993 federal law.

“I don’t see any urgent need for it now,” Hutchinson said. “Again, I got my request, so we’ll see what the future develops but I considered the issue resolved when they gave me my first request of a new bill.”

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Hutchinson had called for changes to the bill after facing widespread backlash from some of the state’s largest employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart. He signed the compromise measure into law the same day Indiana’s governor approved an amendment to that state’s religious objections law in the face of similar protests.

Unlike Indiana, Arkansas’ compromise measure doesn’t include specific language barring the law from being used to discriminate based on sexual orientation. The Arkansas measure addresses actions only by government, not businesses or individuals. Supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals.

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Opponents have said the measure could still allow for discrimination, particularly because Arkansas doesn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity in its anti-discrimination law. The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has said it’ll spend the coming months urging Hutchinson to sign an order giving anti-discrimination protections to LGBT state workers.

“Now is the time to take action,” HRC’s Arkansas Director Kendra Johnson said in a statement Thursday afternoon. She said issuing the executive order would be an “essential first step” toward Hutchinson proving the religious-objection bill “debacle is behind him.”

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Hutchinson also said he didn’t regret his support for the initial version of the religion bill.

“That’s not the kind of issue you want bottled up in committee, so I’m glad it ultimately got to the floor for a vote and I was glad to encourage that,” Hutchinson said. “Now, in hindsight, sure, I wish we all knew 45 days ago what we know today. We could have been more precise in the language and I would have made my call for a bill that precisely mirrors the federal bill earlier.”

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