- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2015

Arkansas and Indiana lawmakers rushed Thursday to reconfigure their much-maligned religious freedom bills, striking compromises that mollified some critics but also touched off a new round of debate between religious conservatives and gay rights advocates.

At a Thursday morning signing ceremony, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson praised state legislators for recalling the previous bill and approving a second measure in a breakneck 24 hours, reacting to an outcry from the national protest movement and threats of an economic boycott.

Meanwhile, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill a few hours later to specify that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed last week cannot be used as a legal defense to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“There will be some who think this legislation goes too far and some who think it does not go far enough, but as governor I must always put the interest of our state first and ask myself every day, ‘What is best for Indiana?’” Mr. Pence said in a statement. “I believe resolving this controversy and making clear that every person feels welcome and respected in our state is best for Indiana.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum summed up the reaction from the right, where religious conservatives were generally pleased with the Arkansas law but highly critical of the new Indiana law, which was seen as gutting essential religious protections.

The Republican potential presidential hopeful called Mr. Pence “a dear friend,” but said he was “disappointed to see that the corporate community has just launched on him, and it’s created an atmosphere where he has backpedaled a little bit.”

“It’s unfortunate. There’s nothing wrong with the Indiana law,” said Mr. Santorum in a Thursday interview on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. “If you look at Asa Hutchinson, Asa made a very minor tweak to the bill in Arkansas and signed it today. He specifically applied the federal law, which is a pretty safe place to be. Mike could do the same thing, and this issue would hopefully be behind him.”

Gay rights supporters were lukewarm on the Arkansas law, with the Human Rights Campaign saying in a statement that the measure “improves the disastrous H.B. 1228 but falls short of providing needed non-discrimination protections to all Arkansans.”

Still, HRC President Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native, said he was pleased that “the people of Arkansas spoke up in opposition to a discriminatory, mean-spirited bill, and the state’s leaders backed away from the cliff.”

Those on the left had more praise for the new Indiana law, which specifically bars discrimination against gays and transgender people, although at least one critic, Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle, derided the effort as “insufficient” for failing to repeal outright the newly signed RFRA.

The ACLU called the Indiana law a “major improvement,” while Freedom Indiana and National LGBTQ Task Force said it was a “step in the right direction.” The legislators were joined at the press conference by executives from the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and Salesforce.com.

Still, gay rights groups emphasized that the ultimate solution would be to add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” as protected classes under the state’s civil rights law.

“The harm has been lessened. But the fact remains: LGBT Hoosiers need full protection under Indiana law!” said Freedom Indiana in a website post.

Meanwhile, the Indiana law came in for heavy flak from the right. Heritage Foundation fellow Ryan T. Anderson argued that it “targets the millions of other religious Americans who wish to live their lives in accordance with their faith values, free from government coercion.”

“The religious liberty law is good policy. It needs no ‘fix,’” said Mr. Anderson. “And the proposed ‘fix’ amounts to nothing less than a wholesale repeal of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act with respect to those who need religious liberty protections the most.”

Mark Rienzi, senior counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the original Indiana bill would have simply given business owners refusing to serve gay weddings their day in court, but that the revision amounts to “a green light for driving religious people out of business.”

“Our society should not settle this issue by punishing religious people before they even have their day in court,” Mr. Rienzi said.

Other states have reacted to the uproar by edging away from RFRA bills. In Georgia, an RFRA bill died Thursday as the state legislature adjourned.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican like Mr. Hutchinson and Mr. Pence, said in an interview Thursday with the Detroit Free Press that he would veto an RFRA bill if one came across his desk. Such legislation is still pending.

Nineteen states and the federal government had approved RFRA laws prior to last week. The original Arkansas and Indiana measures were broader than the others in that they applied even when the government was not a party to a lawsuit, although four federal appeals courts have ruled that RFRA laws automatically apply to lawsuits between private entities, regardless of whether they specify that.

The measures were inspired in part by a spate of lawsuits filed by same-sex couples against Christian florists, bakers and photographers who had refused to provide services for gay weddings. So far no Christian business owner has won such a case, even in states with RFRA laws.

Lawmakers in both states came under enormous pressure — including boycott threats — to repeal or amend the laws from the gay rights movement, which was backed by influential companies such as Apple and Wal-Mart and sports organizations like NASCAR and the NCAA.


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