Two U.S. states have advanced religious freedom bills this week that would prevent the government from compelling businesses to take actions that would violate their religious beliefs. Critics argue that the legislation approved by Arkansas and Indiana on Tuesday could legalize discrimination against LGBT people under the guise of freedom of religion.
In Arkansas, the state’s Senate judiciary committee approved on Tuesday a bill that would prohibit state and local governments from taking actions that place a burden on an individual’s religious beliefs unless a “compelling governmental interest” was proven, the Associated Press reported. If passed, the bill would strengthen the case of individuals suing the government over infringements of their religious beliefs.
Supporters of the legislation say that the bill is not intended to be anti-gay, arguing that it is a necessary means of protecting religious practice in the state. "It's pro-religion, the ability for someone to carry out their beliefs without the state bugging them about it," said Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger at the hearing. "That's what this is."
Indiana’s bill similarly forbids state and local laws that would “substantially burden” the ability of people and businesses to follow their religious beliefs. The measure passed the state’s senate on Tuesday, with Indiana now poised to be the first state to adopt such a law pending approval by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. The bill’s backers have specifically pointed to its utility in preventing the government from forcing people to provide services for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable because of their religious beliefs.
Rallies supporting both sides of the Indiana bill drew hundreds of people to the state’s capital, Indianapolis, this week with clergy members advocating both in support of and against the measure.
A number of states have considered similar measures, including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Arizona, where Republican former Gov. Jan Brewer eventually vetoed the effort after objections by business groups who warned that the bill could harm the state’s economy. Indiana’s Chamber of Commerce has similarly opposed that state’s law over fears that it could lead to companies facing lawsuits from employees claiming violations of their religious beliefs.
Gay rights groups argue that lawmakers are proposing these measures as a way of granting state-sanctioned waivers for discrimination amid a tide of victories for LGBT rights across the country. With the country’s highest court preparing to consider same-sex marriage in April, many evangelical Christians and conservatives have pushed these initiatives in anticipation of the possibility that the Supreme Court will legalize the practice in all 50 states, according to the New York Times. Same-sex couples are currently allowed to marry in 37 states and the District of Columbia.