The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday night approved transmitting two amended existing bills to the House that add language that mirrors the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Senate Bills 229 and 975 as amended serve as potential compromises to House Bill 1228, a bill opponents say could allow for discrimination against gay people while the bill's main sponsor has said it strengthens religious freedom protections.
SB 229 passed with 26 voting for and six voting against, and SB975 passed with 25 voting for and no one voting against.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday morning that he had asked legislators to amend HB1228 or present a new bill with language more closely matching the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Several senators said they were upset of the "hostile" takeover of SB975, originally sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch to amend state law concerning government entities regulating free exercise of religion.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said SB975 was the bill most preferred by HB1225 sponsor Rep. Bob Ballinger because of the title and several senators said that Stubblefield did not agree with the bill as amended.
"We tried to accommodate Ballinger who has been very accommodating himself and we're trying to get the House the bill they want," Hutchinson said on using Stubblefield's bill.
"I don't feel it was right for the governor to say he was going to sign something that he watched all the way through and didn't sign," Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said. "I know things come up at the last minute but now we have hodgepodged some bills together."
Sen. Hutchinson and other senators said SB975 had the best legal chance of holding up in court if challenged.
A Senate panel on Wednesday endorsed amending two separate existing bills to mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, just hours after Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked legislators to amend House Bill 1228.
The Senate Judicial Committee amended Senate Bill 229, sponsored by Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, and SB975, originally sponsored by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch.
Both bills have identical amendments, which repeat the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act law adapted to Arkansas code, committee chair Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said.
The committee approved removing the legislative findings section from both amendments and adding an exemption for the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Cooper filed his bill Feb. 5 and it was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee that same day, according to the Arkansas Legislature's website.
The amendment to SB975, removed Stubblefield as the lead sponsor, replacing him with Hutchinson and added Rep. Bob Ballinger as the lead sponsor in the House.
Both bills passed as amended and now head to the Senate floor.
The new Religious Freedom Restoration Act bills could be voted on in the Senate as early as Wednesday night if the rules are suspended to consider them, Sen. Hutchinson said.
Opponents of House Bill 1228 have said it would allow discrimination against gay people, but HB1128's sponsor Ballinger has defended the measure as strengthening protection of religious freedom.
The governor had repeatedly said he would sign the bill into law despite objections from opponents and backlash against similar legislation in Indiana.
In a news conference on Wednesday, Hutchinson called for changes be made to the legislation to more closely resemble the federal law or to make changes with new legislation.
Several protests have taken place over the last few days at the state Capitol, and several businesses including Acxiom and Wal-Mart, called for the governor to veto HB1228.
On Wednesday, the Arkansas Stonewall Democratic Caucus, a group that promotes homosexual advocacy and is not an affiliate of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, asked Hutchinson for an executive order adding protections from discrimination regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and age, as well as for veterans.
See Thursday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full coverage.