LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — An opponent of Arkansas‘ religious objections law said Friday he’s looking at proposing changing it to include protections for gays and lesbians, as well as making clear religious leaders aren’t required to perform same-sex weddings.
Speaking at a forum on the new law aimed at preventing the government from infringing on someone’s religious beliefs, Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker said he was looking at proposing the changes when the Legislature convenes in 2017. Tucker said the proposal could have more support than expanding Arkansas’ civil rights law to include protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“Maybe if we could put it in the statute to make it absolutely explicit that if you’re engaged in a religious ceremony, you have that protection but at the same time if you’re engaged in some civil practice like renting an apartment or selling a sandwich, then you can’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, then maybe that would have a better shot of getting through,” Tucker told reporters.
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the religious objections measure into law after legislators rewrote the measure at his request to address criticism that an initial version sent to his desk would open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBT people.
Tucker appeared jointly with Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger, who sponsored the law, at a forum held by the Political Animals Club. The club meets regularly to hear from elected officials and other political figures.
Indiana lawmakers changed that state’s religious objections measure to include LGBT anti-discrimination language after similarly facing a public backlash. Ballinger said he opposed adding such language to Arkansas’ legislation and said opponents should have pushed for adding such language to the state’s civil rights law.
“The community who’s mad that that wasn’t on the bill, they should be mad at their legislators for not introducing that bill and not running it and not creating that debate,” Ballinger said. “Frankly, I know it wouldn’t be very popular and it wouldn’t pass. However, if we don’t have that debate, I promise you it’s not going to pass.”
Ballinger praised Attorney General Leslie Rutledge for an advisory opinion issued this week that said it was unclear whether courts would require justices of the peace to officiate same-sex weddings. Ballinger said he believed the religious objections law would protect JPs.
“They may or may not win on it, but it’s a defense that could be offered,” Ballinger said.
JPs — who are elected to counties’ governing boards — are authorized to preside over weddings but it’s not a required part of their duties and they can decide to not officiate any weddings. Rutledge has said clerks are required to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage.
Tucker said he hadn’t read Rutledge’s opinion, but believed that JPs shouldn’t be able to say they’d only marry straight couples.
“I don’t think they have an obligation to perform marriage ceremonies, but if they’re going to do it, then they cannot choose to do one and not the other,” he said.
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