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