US states pass revised religious objection proposals

Updated: 2015-04-03 11:44


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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas - Lawmakers in the central states of Arkansas and Indiana passed legislation Thursday that they hoped would quiet the uproar over new religious objections laws that opponents say are designed to offer a legal defense for anti-gay discrimination.

Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a revised version of a religious objections bill that supporters say addresses concerns that the original proposal sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians. After Indiana endured mounting criticism for passing its similar law this week, Hutchinson reversed course and asked for changes to make his state's law more closely mirror a 1993 federal law. Supporters of the compromise bill say it addresses concerns that the original proposal was discriminatory.

A parallel process played out at the Indiana Capitol as the Legislature passed changes to a law signed last week by Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who quickly approved the revisions.

"Over the past week, this law has become a subject of great misunderstanding and controversy across our state and nation," Pence said in a statement. "However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward."

The laws in Indiana and Arkansas were part of a legal movement sparked by the rapid advance of same-sex marriage around America. Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.

As originally passed, neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentioned gays and lesbians. But opponents have voiced concern 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.

Indiana's new legislation marks the first time sexual orientation and gender identity have been mentioned in state law.

The Indiana amendment prohibits service providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.

The measure exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with nonprofit religious organizations.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said the agreement sends a "very strong statement" that the state will not tolerate discrimination.

Business leaders, many of whom had opposed Indiana's law or canceled travel to the state because of it, called the amendment a good first step but said more work needs to be done. Gay-rights groups noted that Indiana still does not include the gay community as a protected class in its civil-rights law, but Bosma said lawmakers met with representatives of the gay community and said they believed the new language addressed many of their concerns.

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, now a senior vice president at drugmaker Eli Lilly, praised the agreement but noted that work needs to be done to repair the damage done to the state's image.

Democratic leaders said the proposed amendment didn't go far enough and repeated their calls to repeal the law.

Like Pence, in Arkansas Hutchinson faced pressure from the state's largest employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart. Businesses called the bill discriminatory and said it would hurt the state's image.

Conservative groups said they would still prefer that Hutchinson sign the original bill, but they grudgingly backed the compromise measure.

The revised Arkansas measure only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals, and supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals. Opponents said they believed the measure still needs explicit anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana's proposal.

The Human Rights Campaign, America's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, called the new law an improvement but said it could still be used be used to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

The backlash gave pause to lawmakers in other states considering their own religious freedom proposals.

A divisive bill in Georgia stalled Thursday as the end of the 2015 session approached. Atlanta-based Coca-Cola warned lawmakers against approving "any legislation that discriminates."