A bill that supporters say advances religious freedom got final approval in the Arkansas House on Tuesday, sparking protests from opponents who say the legislation can be used to discriminate against gays.
Religious Freedom Restoration ActView All
Rep. Mike Holcomb (left), D-Pine Bluff, and John Payton (right), R-Wilburn, talk with Rep. Bob Ballinger after a final amendment to Ballinger’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act was approved Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in the House.
Rep. Justin Harris shouts for a point of order Tuesday as House Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong (not shown) speaks against amendments to House Bill 1228.
Democrats tried to amend or kill the measure Tuesday but were outvoted by Republicans.
Tuesday's vote followed a wave of opposition from business leaders, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. On Tuesday, the world's largest retailer denounced the bill.
"Today's passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold," Doug McMillon, the retailer's chief executive, said in a statement. "For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation."
Similar objections to HB1228 came from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Little Rock Conventions and Visitors Bureau.
The Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties have also opposed the legislation.
Faced with three Senate amendments to agree on, the House pushed forward HB1228, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, in a series of three one-sided votes.
The bill, which is similar to legislation that has raised an uproar in Indiana, is headed to the office of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has previously expressed support for it.
On Tuesday, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said he didn't have anything new to say about the legislation.
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, which was first passed in the House on Feb. 13 in a 72-20 vote, was amended in the Senate last week. The vocal opposition to the bill came mostly from Democrats, who, for a second straight day, were cheered on by anti-HB1228 demonstrators lining the Capitol stairs leading to the House chamber.
If approved, Arkansas wouldn't be allowed to "substantially burden a person's right to exercise of religion" unless doing so is necessary "to further a compelling state interest."
Even in those cases, the state restriction would be allowed only if it is "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."
People who successfully challenge a law on religious grounds could obtain "appropriate relief," including damages, court costs and attorneys' fees. The bill would exempt jails, prisons, the state Department of Correction and the state Department of Community Correction.
Supporters say the legislation is similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and that 20 other states have similar protections.
Critics say the bill would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and others.
During Tuesday's debate on the amendments, House minority leader Rep. Eddie Armstrong, D-North Little Rock, denounced the bill.
"The freedom to exercise their faith has a great history in our nation and in our state," he said. But the bill would "allow the other side of religion, the one that believes religion can and should be used as a weapon against those ... that may not walk, talk or believe like we do," Armstrong said. "That's what this amendment does. These folks have the absolute right to believe that the way they are in their hearts will stand ...."
"Point of order," shouted Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who complained that Armstrong was going off topic.
"Rep. Armstrong, you may proceed," said House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia. "But stay tight to ... the language of the amendment."
"It's amazing that Rep. Bell rises to take a point of order when one of his own members of his caucus stood for like 20 minutes ...," Armstrong said.
"Point of order," more representatives shouted.
"Our history will tell us, ladies and gentlemen, when religion is used as a sword, it is often done to marginalize the vulnerable members of our society, whether against the people of color or women ..."
"Point of Order!"
"He's attacking members," Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork said. "He needs to stay on the amendment."
"I yield," Armstrong said.
Before Armstrong's comments, fellow Democrat Rep. Camille Bennett, an attorney from Lonoke, made a motion to re-refer the bill back to committee to be amended to strike much of the language in the five-page measure and rewrite it so that it is more in line with the language used in the federal version of this law, which was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
"I've tried hard this session to focus on legal issues in bills and separate those from any emotional issues that may be out there," Bennett said. "I believe there are several technical, legal issues with this bill that make it very difficult for the courts to administer. ... I'm not saying my amendment is the perfect amendment. ... I ask that we can return it back to committee so we can pass a law that we're proud of."
Bennett's motion, which Ballinger suggested would effectively "kill" his bill, failed.
Ballinger said the bill is not discriminatory and that it is merely a tool for citizens to use to protect their religious values.
People who want to pass laws outlawing discrimination against gays are free to do so, but they shouldn't derail this bill, Ballinger said.
"This bill was about protecting religion ... if they want a different bill, that's fine, they can file it," Ballinger said. "[The debate] got to the point where people were getting mean and mad at each other. I don't want to see that. The reality is that I'm not a mean person ... so I hate the fact that the bill I brought has brought division."
The bill was preceded by the passage of Senate Bill 202, by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, which forbid cities or counties from enacting their own civil rights ordinances.
Like legislation in Indiana, it has spawned national attention and much resistance from the business community.
Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, said he met with Hutchinson, Ballinger and others to discuss concerns about how HB1228, if enacted, could stymie business development.
Sabin, who voted against HB1228, pointed to stories of businesses in Indiana vowing not to expand there.
"If we don't try to take a lesson from that, we'll be making a mistake and jeopardize economic development and tourism prospects for the future," Sabin said. "It's instructive."
Sabin said he and other Democrats planned to push last-minute legislation that would add a "non-discrimination" element to HB1228, a tactic that Gillam said was possible if legislators used a "shell bill" that was filed before the bills-filing deadline.
The head of the House freshmen caucus, Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, said she didn't think the bill was discriminatory but that a non-discrimination clause would help address some of the bill's criticisms and make it more palatable to opponents.
But Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, said the bill has been misconstrued and its intent twisted by critics.
"This is a law that years ago was signed by Bill Clinton at the federal level, Barack Obama voted for it twice when he was in the Illinois Legislature," Cox said in an interview before the vote. "But now that all of the homosexual issues have been injected into the debate, it suddenly becomes toxic, and I think that's unfortunate because that's really not what this bill is about. It's about ensuring that everyone's religious freedom will be protected equally."
Cox expressed confidence that the governor will sign it.
"He has said twice, I believe, publicly that he is going to sign the bill," Cox said. "He's a man of his word, and so I totally expect him to sign the bill. I see no reason that he would ever go back on his word.
"If he were to do so, then he would have succeeded in making everybody angry -- the right and the left."
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