Arkansas Governor Asks Lawmakers To Rework Religious Liberty Bill

Apr 2, 2015
Originally published on April 2, 2015 10:08 am
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Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson wants his state's legislature to rewrite a controversial religious freedom bill. Critics say the bill, like another recently passed in Indiana, will make it easier to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But the bill has generated strong opposition from the state's business community, including the retail giant Walmart. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Governor Hutchinson has promised to sign the bill, but he backed out at the last minute. In a press conference yesterday, he said one of the things that changed his mind was opposition from Arkansas businesses.

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GOVERNOR ASA HUTCHINSON: I have had some communication personally with some of the business leaders across the state. Others have communicated in different fashions. And they raise an important issue.

ZARROLI: The bill would have barred state and local governments from infringing on someone's religious beliefs unless the government had a strong compelling interest. Critics say the bill would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Supporters deny that. But as the controversy mushroomed, the state's business community began opposing the bill. Jay Chesshir is president and CEO of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

JAY CHESSHIR: It gave everyone an opportunity to take a step back, take a deep breath, recognize that the last thing we want to do is to be a state of intolerance as opposed to a state of opportunity.

ZARROLI: Among the companies opposing bill was Arkansas-based Walmart, the country's biggest private-sector employer. State representative Camille Bennett says what scared businesses wasn't just bad PR. The bill is based on a federal law adopted by many states but is much broader. And she says it would open up private companies to lawsuits. For instance, she says, what if someone believed a textbook used in local schools violated his or her religious beliefs?

REPRESENTATIVE CAMILLE BENNETT: I can now sue the state for that. Can I sue the manufacturer of that school book that sold it to the state? Maybe.

ZARROLI: And Bennett says the bill defines religious values so broadly that anyone can claim to be a church of one and file suit.

BENNETT: I think that's when we really got everyone's attention. It's when they realized this can have direct implications for private corporations.

ZARROLI: Bennett says companies like Walmart have lots of smart attorneys. And once they realized the potential impact of the bill, they began to call for its defeat. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.