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Analysis: Marriage ruling opens fight within Arkansas GOP

Analysis: Marriage ruling opens fight within Arkansas GOP
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.)
Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) AP

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. –– A social conservative who once called for banning gay couples from becoming foster parents, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson was an unlikely foil for members of his own party outraged at the U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

But Hutchinson now faces pushback from conservatives who think the state should protect county clerks who don’t want to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. The situation showcases the hard feelings left over from fights about reworked religious objections law earlier this year. It also suggests Hutchinson will face yet more obstacles over similarly divisive issues in the coming year.

Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge relieved supporters of gay marriage when they ordered Arkansas’ state agencies and its 75 county clerks to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. They said same-sex couples were entitled to marriage licenses on request.

“This is not a matter of discretion” for the clerks, Hutchinson told reporters days after the ruling. “This is just a ministerial act or an act that is automatic when someone properly files for a marriage license. It is simply granted.”

That has brought Hutchinson some pushback from Republican legislators, with the GOP caucuses from both chambers issuing statements urging more protections for those who oppose same-sex marriage. Senate Republicans said they’re pursuing measures to protect clerks “from being forced to violate their religious beliefs about marriage in the performance of their duties.”

The senators’ pledge follows some clerks objecting to issuing marriage licenses that they say would go against their religious beliefs. Cleburne County’s clerk, for instance, resigned. Van Buren County Clerk Pam Bradford said last week her office wouldn’t issue licenses to same-sex couples and urged other clerks to follow suit, but reversed course a day later and said she’d comply with the court’s ruling.

Hutchinson has said he’d consider additional protections, but his position hadn’t changed.

“I will continue to determine what legislative action is needed to address the myriad of legal issues that will result from the ruling, and also what legislation is needed to protect the churches, pastors and religious institutions who cannot follow the dictates of the court,” Hutchinson said in response to the House and Senate GOP caucuses.

Hutchinson’s comments have drawn grumbling from some GOP lawmakers.

“He may not want to personally be dealing with social issues — but the entire nation is and he is our governor and should be proud to defend the will of the people of Arkansas,” Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, said in an email to other GOP senators that was first reported by the Arkansas Times’ blog.

This is an unusual position for Hutchinson, whose first run for governor in 2006 included a call to reinstate a ban on gay foster parents that the state Supreme Court had struck down. Hutchinson regularly criticized Democratic rival Mike Beebe, who defeated him in the race, over the issue.

It’s also a spillover from his handling of a religious objections law that he asked the Legislature to revamp after it was widely criticized as being anti-gay. Hutchinson’s request in the final days of the legislative session prompted more muted complaints from fellow Republicans that the governor was backtracking on a version of the bill he had vowed to sign into law.

Hutchinson has been working to mend any divide within the Legislature, and met with some lawmakers recently to discuss the issue.

Since he would control the agenda for any special session, Hutchinson has the upper hand and could avoid a renewed fight over social issues until the Legislature meets for its fiscal session next year. The question he now faces is whether his vow to find an “Arkansas way” on other contentious issues like Medicaid expansion and Common Core become collateral damage from this fight.

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