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The window to veto or sign into law a bill that aims to bar local governments from enacting their own anti-discrimination laws came and went Monday afternoon with no action from the state's chief executive.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in Washington, D.C., on Monday for a national governors conference, did not act on Senate Bill 202, which means the legislation crafted to curb civil-rights ordinances similar to the one in Eureka Springs and one that voters rejected in Fayetteville will become law 90 days after the legislative session ends.

Hutchinson chose to neither sign the bill nor veto it, saying that he had concerns with legislation that allowed the state to usurp local control of municipal and county governments.

Despite a significant number of phone calls, messages and contacts through social media from organizations and individuals both for and against the legislation, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor's mind remained the same.

Passed by the Senate 24-8 on Feb. 9, the legislation passed the House of Representatives by a 58-21 vote on Feb. 13. After five days on the governor's desk, a bill can become law without his signature.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said he was delighted that the legislation would become law, even though the legislation didn't have the support of the state's new Republican governor.

"You can't have one civil rights [ordinance] in Springdale, different in Fayetteville, different in Rogers, different in Bentonville, different in Bella Vista; business can't operate like that. We just need uniformity across the state," Hester said. "The governor's been around a long time, a lot longer than me, I have a tremendous amount of respect for him. ... I am A-OK with how he's handling this."

Many organizations, from the Human Rights Campaign to the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed Hester's bill and urged Hutchinson to veto it.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said in a statement Monday that the bill runs counter to the company's beliefs and "sends the wrong message about Arkansas."

Despite an outpouring of opposition on the Internet, including a Twitter message from singer Cher, the bill will become law.

Hester said he wasn't surprised by the opposition, and if anything, was surprised how little was voiced given the size of the state.

"There's 3 million people in the state. I'd say less than 500 have voiced opposition to this. As far as me, maybe a hundred people have contacted me. What it speaks to is this bill does what I said; it puts everyone on an even playing field. If someone wants to change civil rights [for gays] then come down to the state [Capitol] and do it across the board."

Some religious leaders have opposed the bill, including the Arkansas Episcopal Convention, as well as the Presbytery of Arkansas, which represents about 14,000 members in 87 churches throughout the northern two-thirds of the state.

The Presbytery also voiced opposition to House Bill 1228, known as the Conscience Protection Act, which would make it harder for government to "burden a person's right to exercise of religion."

"As Christians we know the dangers of encroaching theocracy and the historic damage of individuals acting against the common good in the name of 'sincerely held religious belief,'" the resolution reads. "We must not legally empower dangerous rhetoric into action so that some religiously minded individuals might feel justified in their treatment of homosexuals and others who differ from themselves."

The resolution, voted on by church representatives, was prompted by an email exchange between a Little Rock pastor, the Rev. Marie Mainard-O'Connell, and Hester.

On Feb. 4, she emailed Hester, voicing her concern that SB202 would unduly rob localities of their right to protect their own communities and challenging Hester's argument that the law would help economic growth by preventing towns and counties from enacting anti-bias laws that wouldn't apply equally across the state.

Two days later, at 4:04 a.m., Hester replied, saying that he would "always stand up for yours and every Arkansan's right to freely practice their religion."

He then asked her, "as a reverend," that "If you died today. 1) Would you go to heaven or hell? 2) why?"

Mainard-O'Connell felt the tone and the content offensive, especially since she did not mention religion in her remarks about SB202.

"And to answer your question: I'll see you in heaven at the end of our natural lives by the grace, will and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. If he'll have us," she wrote. "If this information was not covered in your education as a Christian, I suggest you devote some of your personal time to discovering the theology of your tradition."

She then invited Hester to attend a service at her church.

Asked why he questioned a Presbyterian's final destination at 4 a.m., Hester said he gets up early and that as a Baptist he was curious about her faith.

"My perspective to some of this is, I don't know what the Presbyterian people believe. I was trying to ask what is their basis, what do they believe? Anytime you talk about religion, [it] boils down to heaven and hell. Do you get to go to heaven or hell? And what I asked was why? She refused to answer those questions, which is OK. But if they want to come to me representing a particular faith, I wanted to understand that faith better."

The mayor of Eureka Springs, Robert "Butch" Berry, said he was disappointed that the governor didn't veto legislation that would effectively repeal his city's ordinance that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"He's caught between a rock and a hard place. Even if he did veto it, they'd probably have enough votes to override the veto," Berry said. "I think it's just unfortunate that we have legislators who feel we need to tell local communities also what we can do and what we can't do."

Rita Sklar, director of the Arkansas chapter of the ACLU, said her organization is exploring legal challenges to the legislation, either on grounds that the law discriminates against gay people, or on whether it amounts to overreach by the state.

"We think there is nothing but animus toward a particular group of people and discriminatory intent [in the law]," Sklar said. "This is so bad for Arkansas. ... We need to show a forward-thinking, open, tolerant, inclusive face to the rest of the country and the world if we're ever going to be thought of as anything but a backwoods, backwater relic of a pre-Civil War era."

Print Headline: Anti-bias law ban unsigned to end

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Archived Comments

  • Dondi
    February 24, 2015 at 5:49 a.m.

    What does the A/ G have to say about this?

  • WGT
    February 24, 2015 at 6:26 a.m.

    See? Religion. Stupid thinking. Lunatic. This is what Arkansas voters chose to lead the populace to the future. And this is just the beginning. This is the practice run. Y'all ready? This nation is a creation by men who knew and understood the moral bankruptcy and social poison religion holds in its' realm. And in this day and age, the inability to rise above the inane bulls**t of belief in a system of pure make believe, is an obtuse display of complacent, ignorant sheep.

  • Beckygillette
    February 24, 2015 at 7:40 a.m.

    Here is what I emailed to Bart Hester who says only a hundred people contacted him in opposition to this hateful legislation. I saw today in the Dem Gazette where you were quoted as saying only 100 people or so contacted you in opposition to SB 202 and HB 1228. These bills are giving us a black eye in the national media. They could adversely impact economic development and they certainly harm the reputation of the state. I moved here from Mississippi seven years ago and have never been so ashamed of my state.

    And I am offended by your question to the Presbyterian minister, are you going to heaven or hell? That was totally out of line. As for me, I think it is wrong to believe that you can lie, steal, cheat, and murder and as long as you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, you get into heaven. For me, what is most important is HOW I LIVE MY LIVE EVERY DAY, loving others, helping people, being honest and truthful, and speaking out about injustice such as the legislation that you promoted.

  • Vickie55
    February 24, 2015 at 8:17 a.m.

    So you can't have different civil rights ordinances in different cities, but you can have different wet/dry laws in different cities?

  • hah406
    February 24, 2015 at 8:17 a.m.

    Hester should be ashamed. This is another example of just what kind of small minded bigots are running this state. And FYI, over 300 cities, towns, and municipalities have passed their own anti-discrimination legislation and it doesn't seem to be bothering businesses at all. This was nothing but an anti-gay law. Orvil Faubus is probably dancing in his grave right now.

  • RestoftheStory
    February 24, 2015 at 9:06 a.m.

    You cannot pass legislation that will require churches and Christian-owned businesses to hire homosexuals and expect them to comply. Stop and think where this dangerous trail would lead. Liberals often get things backwards. Some have suggested that Arkansas is going back to the Dark Ages, and that idea is backwards. If they would have had a stock market at Sodom, it would've been going strong on the day they were destroyed mostly as a result of homosexuality. (Try to find Sodom on a map today.) Rome was said to have dabbled in this filthy lifestyle before it fell. You see, those who support the ridiculous idea of homosexuality are the ones who are living pre-Dark Ages. You would think that people would learn from the mistakes of history and reject this silly notion of homosexuality.
    .
    You can turn from it. Freedom does not lie in the direction of filthiness. Freedom is a result of turning from sin and turning to God. Your decision will have eternal benefits or consequences.

  • BEARTRAP919
    February 24, 2015 at 9:14 a.m.

    Brother Hester Got Confused and ran for Office, Rather than Preaching on Street Corners to the Masses. Ignorant Red Neck Obama Hating people put Hester and Similar Koch backed Legislators in Office. Arkansas is Desperately trying to win the Race to the Bottom, and May very well have won it with this Legislation. If God did not want Gay People around They would not be around. Jesus Preached Love and You Mr. Hester Promote Hate. The Thought of you asking this Minister if they were going to Hell Or Heaven was Completely out of Line and None of Your business as a Legislator. What is wrong with these Legislators? This is very Embarrassing To the State of Arkansas.

  • BirdDogsRock
    February 24, 2015 at 9:47 a.m.

    So I expect Arkansas' own "black robe regiment" in the legislature will be setting uniform speed limits for all roads in all cities and counties in the states; and imposing uniform school closings during inclement weather; and re-instituting prohibition statewide... all necessities if we are to be one, uniform state, with the universal freedom to mistreat anyone we want to, with our state-sanctioned, uniform set of "deeply held religious beliefs".
    ~
    My personal deeply held beliefs of my Pastafarian religion compel me to treat all people the kind and respectful way I want to be treated, not just my fellow Pastafarians. Live and let live, I say. The Flying Spaghetti Monster god compels me to confront the widespread religious cruelty and inhumanity being so aggressively imposed by the lesser religions and their small-minded gods and people that are so prevalent in our state and legislature.

  • PopMom
    February 24, 2015 at 9:50 a.m.

    Irrefutable Evidence,

    You are so wrong. Segregationists said the same thing about the hiring of blacks. Many gays work for churches and church owned schools and businesses. Some of the far right Christian preachers are gay and self-loathing.

  • Morebeer
    February 24, 2015 at 9:54 a.m.

    Hester said it was a about an even playing field for business. But his email exchange with the minister shows he had a Baptist agenda. Sen. Hester 1.) Is lying a sin? 2.) Do liars end up in heaven or hell?

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