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Laws in both Indiana and Arkansas speak to a national trend of similar legislation that have tried to enshrine legal protections to discriminate—especially against gays and lesbians—under the guise of 'religious freedom.' (Photo: NBC News)

In Reversal, Arkansas Governor Says He Won't Sign Pro-Discrimination Bill

Despite Indiana fallout, Arkansas legislature had approved measure which critics say would sanction second-class treatment of gays, lesbians, and others

Jon Queally

Update (11:55 AM EST): Gov. Asa Hutchinson won't sign controversial bill in its current form

In a reversal, Republican Governor of Arkansas Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday he won't sign a controversial 'Religious Liberty' bill into law unless changes are made that make it clear the measure does not authorize discrimination. The bill passed by Arkansas legislators on Wednesday mirrors enacted in Indiana last week that created a national backlash and a wave of criticism against similar laws in other states.

CNN reports:

The first-term Republican governor said he wants his state "to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance."

His decision comes in the wake of an uproar in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence has faced pressure from businesses, sports associations like the NCAA and popular culture figures to backtrack on a similar religious freedom law he signed last week. In Arkansas, it's been Walmart heaping apply the most pressure.

Hutchinson asked lawmakers to recall the law that the Arkansas House had given final approval on Tuesday -- or to send him follow-up legislation that makes the changes he requested.

Meanwhile, Hutchinson said, he's considering signing an executive order that bars discrimination among the state's workforce.

"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."

Earlier (7:55 AM EST):

Despite the national outcry and political fallout from a similar bill in Indiana, the Republican-controlled Arkansas state legislature passed the so-called 'Religious Liberty' law on Tuesday, sending it to the desk of  Governor Asa Hutchinson for final approval.

Like the controversial new law in Indiana, aka the 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act' (or RFRA), the proposed measure which received final approval by both the Arkansas House and Senate says, in part, that "state action shall not substantially burden a person's right to exercise of religion." However, critics point out that those protections for religious freedom already exist and that what the law is really trying to do is offer legal cover, under the guise of religion, to those who would discriminate against others—particularly gays and lesbians—of whom they disapprove.

"Religious freedom is a fundamental value, but it should not be used to justify harm or discrimination against others," said Rita Sklar, executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, which opposes the bill.

With the bill now officially on the desk of Gov. Hutchinson, also a Republican, the only way to stop it from becoming law is to issue a veto. His other choices include signing it into law, or doing nothing, in which case the bill automatically becomes law after five days. Hutchison has voiced support for the law and indicated he will sign it, but the ongoing controversy and outcry over the law in Indiana may at least give him pause.

As the Huffington Post reports:

Arkansas is about to enter the same minefield that Indiana has been trapped in since Pence signed his religious freedom bill last week. In Indiana, major companies like Twitter and the NCAA, as well as celebrities like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Miley Cyrus, have spoken out against the law.

In Arkansas, both Walmart and Acxiom, a big data company, have spoken out against the legislation. The Democratic mayor of Little Rock also warned Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Tuesday that "any piece of legislation that is so divisive cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people."

But Hutchinson appears unfazed by these concerns. Last week, he vowed that he would sign the legislation: "Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy," he said in a statement.

On behalf of the ACLU, Sklar said, "The legislature and governor of Arkansas should heed the economic damage and vocal public outcry that Indiana is facing and stop this bill in its tracks."

If signed into law, Arkansas would become one of 21 states which have passed some version of the RFRA. As a national trend, LGBTQ rights groups and civil liberties advocates see it largely as backlash against the wave of legal victories won for same-sex marriage in recent years.

As the New York Times explained in a Q&A on the issue:

Many of those who pushed for Indiana’s law have explicitly said that they hope it will protect vendors who refuse to participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies, helping them avoid actions that according to their beliefs are onerous and sinful. Less clear is how often that might occur, and how often those vendors might win in court.

To civil rights advocates, “religious freedom,” in this case, is code for simple discrimination and would not only inconvenience gay and lesbian couples, but also would relegate them to a form of second-class status. Those selling to the public should not be able to turn away customers because of their own private beliefs, these advocates say; the vendor is, after all, selling flowers, and is not required to embrace the beliefs of the customers. These critics ask: How would the public respond if businesses offered religious reasons for refusing to serve interracial couples?

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