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Arkansas governor wants religious freedom bill recalled, won’t sign in present form

Kristen Hooper, center, and Robert Loyd, right, hold a sign on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol thanking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for calling for changes to a religious objection measure in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015.
Kristen Hooper, center, and Robert Loyd, right, hold a sign on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol thanking Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson for calling for changes to a religious objection measure in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015. Danny Johnston, AP

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Neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentions gays and lesbians, but opponents are concerned that the language contained in them could offer a legal defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Supporters insist the law will only give religious objectors a chance to bring their case before a judge.

Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, with some differences. Indiana and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.

Hutchinson did not specifically call for changes that would prohibit the law from being used to deny services, but the governor said he did not believe the bill was intended to do so.

“This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination,” Hutchinson said.

Legislators face a short window to act. The governor has five days after the bill is formally delivered to him to take action before it becomes law without his signature.

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By Wednesday night, the Senate had approved a new version of the bill by a 26-6 vote. The Senate moments later approved a separate, identical version of the compromise bill by a 26-0 vote.

A House panel was expected to take up the proposal Thursday, with supporters hoping to put it up for a final vote later that day. One of the lawmakers behind the original religious objections bill said he supported the changes, even though he preferred the initial measure.

“This is a good opportunity, and I feel like it protects the citizens of the state of Arkansas that they’ll be able to believe what they want to believe without government interference,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said.

The revised proposal would only address actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals. Supporters of the amended version said the change means businesses denying services to someone on religious grounds could not use the law as a defense.

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