Arkansas Governor Asks For Changes to Religious Freedom Bill

Danny Johnston/AP

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson called for changes in the state’s controversial religious freedom bill on Wednesday, amid mounting criticism from businesses, local leaders, gay rights advocates, and even members of his own family. 

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Hutchinson told reporters. “But these are not ordinary times.”

Hutchinson said in a press conference that he would not sign the bill as presented to his desk and asked state lawmakers to change the bill’s language to “mirror” the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Twenty other states, including Indiana, have similar religious freedom legislation

“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Hutchinson told reporters. “But these are not ordinary times.”

In a press conference on Tuesday, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, whose state has also faced a barrage of criticism from businesses, celebrities and athletes alike, called on lawmakers to clarify Indiana’s religious freedom bill that “makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone.”  

Though Hutchinson had once said he would approve the bill with amendments, the governor shifted his stance after receiving backlash from local leaders and businesses, including Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who called on the governor to veto the bill. 

“Today’s passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” McMillon said in a statement. “For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”

Hutchinson told reporters that the controversial legislation, which critics say would allow individuals and businesses to discriminate against gay men and lesbians, hit home. His son, Seth, a labor organizer with the Texas State Employees Union, asked him to veto the legislation. “I love my dad, and we have a good, close relationship,” Hutchinson’s son told the New York Times. “But we disagree a lot on political issues. This is just another one, but a lot of families disagree politically. But we stay close.”

“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”

The Arkansas General Assembly has not yet agreed to recall and amend the bill. The governor declined to say whether he would veto the bill if it returned to his desk unchanged. 

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