Arkansas is the latest battleground over “religious freedom” laws that are coming under criticism from businesses and advocates who call them a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
The southern state is poised to become the second this year to enact such a measure, which would prohibit state and local governments from infringing on someone’s religious beliefs without a “compelling” reason.
The Arkansas state House has voted in favor of the bill in the midst of a furor over a similar law adopted in the Midwestern state of Indiana.
Gay-rights groups say the laws are a way for lawmakers to grant a state-sanctioned waiver for discrimination. Supporters contend discrimination claims are overblown and insist the laws will keep the government from compelling people to provide services they find objectionable on religious grounds.
The debate comes as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to consider whether gay marriage should be legalized nationwide. Thirty-seven of the 50 states allow same-sex marriages, a number that has quadrupled in the last two years amid a flurry of legal rulings. The changing landscape has triggered a backlash and a debate over whether businesses such as florists and bakeries should be compelled to service gay weddings if they oppose them on religious grounds.
Hundreds of protesters filled Arkansas’ Capitol to oppose the pending measure, holding signs that read “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease.”
The protests echo the backlash in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill into law last week. Some companies and organizations have canceled future travel to Indiana or halted expansion plans in the state.
Pence said that he wanted legislation clarifying that the new law does not allow discrimination by the end of the week. He said he has been meeting with lawmakers “around the clock” to address concerns that that law will allow businesses to deny services to gay and lesbians.
Arkansas lawmakers say they have no plans to include such clarification.
Similar “religious freedom” proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.
Arkansas’ Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he’ll sign the measure into law.
Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post over the weekend opposing the Arkansas and Indiana measures. Retail giant Wal-Mart has said the proposal sends the wrong message about its home state, Arkansas.
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