Arkansas Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang said Tuesday that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is a good law enacted by the Arkansas Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week, but the process wasn't "pretty."
The Searcy Republican said, "I will take some fault for what happened there."
Under Arkansas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act, there must be a "compelling governmental interest" before the government is allowed to "substantially burden" a person's "exercise of religion." Even then, the government must use the "least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."
Supporters say the law will protect Arkansans when their religious beliefs conflict with state or local laws. Opponents say the law will lead to discrimination against gays and others who face religious persecution.
Dismang said the original House-passed version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- House Bill 1228 -- had been in the Senate Judiciary Committee for about a month, and "there was a general understanding that that bill was not going to move forward."
"Well, lo and behold there was five votes [for the bill to clear the committee], and it's on our floor and it passes out," Dismang told about 60 people attending a breakfast of the Political Animals Club in Little Rock.
Democratic state Sen. David Burnett of Osceola joined four Republicans on the committee to recommend that the Senate approve the bill after the Republican governor asked him to do so. The governor's nephew, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, and Burnett later said they made mistakes in voting to get the bill out of committee and voted against it in the Senate.
"I believe that people have the right to believe, and I believe they have the right to not take actions that conflict with their religious beliefs. But at the same time, I had not read the bill. My understanding was that the bill mirrored the federal law when in fact it didn't," said Dismang, who voted to approve HB1228.
HB1228 created "uncertainty" for "the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community" and "even for, in a way" Christians, and "I think that's what made people emotional about the issue," Dismang said.
Dismang said the Senate and House, at the governor's request, approved Senate Bill 975, a version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that closely mirrors the federal law signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. The House also voted to recall HB1228 from the governor's desk last week, sparing the governor from having to veto it.
"Ultimately, we got to where we wanted to be," Dismang said. "The process was not pretty. But again, the ultimate result I think was good. He wanted a RFRA. I think the majority of both chambers wanted to have some of those protections in place that had been given to us at the federal level."
After Tuesday's Political Animals breakfast, Dismang was asked if he supported having some explicit anti-discrimination language in the legislation.
"I think that's one of the things that we are leaving to the governor. He has talked about issuing some executive orders. I think that is probably his place," he said. "I don't think there was time to have a thorough debate on what should be injected and what not and how it should be worded."
Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis declined Tuesday to confirm or deny whether a proposed executive order dated April 1 was drafted by the governor's office, citing the working-papers exemption under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
An unsigned copy of the proposed executive order was circulating at the Capitol last week and was obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It says it's "the policy of the state of Arkansas to implement employment practices that will prevent discrimination and harassment and that will be in full compliance with federal and Arkansas civil rights laws."
The proposed executive order also says state agencies are directed to assess, evaluate and report any incidents of discrimination so that the executive and legislative branches of the state "will have needed information to determine whether any further changes in our laws need to be made in order to assure that Arkansas is a state which recognizes the diversity of the work place and the genuinely-held religious convictions of Arkansans."
Hutchinson "feels good" about the bipartisan Religious Freedom Restoration Act that mirrors the federal law and has no plans to issue an executive order on the issue at this time, Davis said.
Asked whether he supports expanding state's civil-rights laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity, Dismang replied: "For me personally, it is something to take a look at in the interim [between legislative sessions] and, again, I don't know enough at this point to know how even that legislation should be worded.
"My understanding is a ballot title has been approved [for a proposed initiated act], and so I'll be taking a look at that here pretty quickly and see what the wording is like," he said. "I would want to see what we are talking about before I give a thumbs up or thumbs down or at least where my support would be."
Asked about adding sexual orientation to the state's civil-rights laws, Dismang said "I would want to see what the history of doing that has been in the other states and what that means."
He said that will be an issue in the 2017 regular session, "but I am not sure how major it will be."
Dismang told the Political Animals Club that "we had a goal of making sure that we funded a teaching mission" for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences during this year's session, but "that was not accomplished so far.
"I think UAMS is a pretty good shining light here in the state of Arkansas, and I think it is one that we probably need to take a better look at and make sure that we are providing adequate funds to," Dismang said. "I think we are probably one of the only medical education colleges in the country that does not have that type of funding there [for the teaching mission]."
"But we are going to get there, and we are working towards it, and even working towards it in the interim [between sessions] to make sure that the funding exists," Dismang said.
UAMS spokesman Leslie Taylor said Tuesday that UAMS requested $15 million in additional funding to support its educational programs, but the Legislature provided no new funding for those programs.
UAMS officials "would certainly pursue any opportunity to discuss [the] possibility" of seeking state rainy-day funds to help fund its educational mission, Taylor said.
Metro on 04/08/2015
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