Arkansas, Indiana approve fixes to acts seen as targeting gays
Apr 02, 2015 06:46 PM EDT
Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated statehouses of Indiana and Arkansas on Thursday approved fixes to religion acts that had provoked a storm of criticism from rights groups and big U.S. companies because the measures were seen as allowing for discrimination against gays.
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law minutes after it arrived on his desk. There was no immediate indication whether Indiana Governor Mike Pence, also a Republican, had approved the new measure sent to him.
Hutchinson had come under pressure from Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, to revoke the original measure which it said would send the wrong message about Arkansas, where it is based.
He said the state crafted an "Arkansas solution" that was meant to make its laws more closely mirror a federal law crafted under former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
"It recognizes the diversity and culture of our workforce and protects religious freedom," he said.
Critics say the measures were part of a broader effort in socially conservative states to push back against a series of U.S. court decisions allowing same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court is set to take up the issue this month.
Supporters have said the laws do not allow for discrimination and are needed to protect religious freedoms. Twenty U.S. states and the federal government have RFRAs, which allow individuals to sue the government if they believe their First Amendment religious rights have been violated.
The original measures in Indiana and Arkansas go further than all but that of Texas, allowing lawsuits between private parties. The Texas law also includes provisions that it cannot be used to violate civil rights.
That raised the possibility of businesses using the law as a defense if they are sued, such as realtors for refusing to show homes to a member of the LGBT community or caterers if they rejected a request to provide for a same-sex wedding.
After the passage into law last week of Indiana's act, the state was flooded with protests, threats of boycotts and warnings from powerful U.S. firms such as Apple Inc. about looming economic damage for its perceived stand against U.S. ideals of inclusion.
In Indiana, lawmakers flanked by gay-rights activists unveiled changes to protect civil liberties. Thursday's news conference was a dramatic turnaround from Republican Governor Mike Pence's governor's signing act, which was attended by some religious activists who decried homosexuality as a mortal sin.
The rewritten Indiana proposal says it does not authorize a provider to refuse to do business with anyone on the basis of "race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or United States military service."
However, churches and religious organizations are exempt, which could allow them to use the law as a defense if they were sued by an individual claiming discrimination.