The Arkansas House of Representative passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by an overwhelming majority on Tuesday. The bill allows businesses to refuse service to any individual on religious grounds, most notably LGBT individuals, making it nearly identical to an Indiana bill that has caused national controversy after it was passed last week.
Arkansas’s House passed HB 1228, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, by a 67-21 vote. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who assumed office in January, said earlier this week he would sign the bill. The bill blocks the state or any local government from “substantially [burdening] the free exercise of religion without compelling justification.”
In this context, the exercise of religion means the practice or observance of religion including without limitation the ability to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a person's sincerely held religious beliefs, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief,” and compelling government interest “means a governmental interest of the highest magnitude that cannot otherwise be achieved without burdening the exercise of religion.”
Opponents of the bill call it a measure that legalizes discrimination against Arkansas’ gays and lesbians, but proponents say the nature of the bill has been distorted in the media and it only seeks to protect individual religious freedoms.
“This is not nearly as exciting a law change as what I think a lot of people think it is,” said Republican Representative Bob Ballinger, according to Arkansas Business. “However, what it does is it does create a situation where we can protect people’s religious practices, let people believe what they want to believe.”
While the bill has broad support on the state level, it has received criticism at other levels of government and with local and national businesses. Little Rock’s Democratic mayor, Mark Stodola, called the bill “divisive” and that it “cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people,” according to Reuters. Two executives with Acxiom, a marketing technology based in Little Rock that employs more than 6,000 people, also voiced their opposition to the bill in an open letter on Monday.
“Simply stated, this bill inflicts pain on some of our citizens and disgrace upon us all,” wrote CEO Scott Howe and Executive Vice President Jerry C. Jones in the letter. “That is not what Arkansas should stand for; we should be an ever forward-thinking state that strives for tolerance and inclusion of everyone, regardless of their differences.” They added that it was bad for business and against Hutchinson’s position that “Arkansas is open for business.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook voiced his opposition to both bills in a Washington Post Op-Ed on Monday.