- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Arkansas state legislature, undeterred by the outcry over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, jumped into the fierce national debate over religious liberty and gay rights by giving final approval Tuesday to its own version of the law.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said as recently as last weekend that he would sign the measure, although local news reports said only that he would have a statement on the issue Wednesday morning.

“This is bill is about protecting religion, about someone’s right to believe what they want to believe without government interference,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Bob Ballinger, on KATV in Little Rock.

Already, however, business leaders have urged the Republican governor to veto the bill, led by Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon, who posed a statement online saying that House Bill 1228 “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

Mr. Hutchinson, who has emphasized economic development since being elected in November, said previously that the bill is “no different than legislation that has passed in 20 other states, from Illinois to Connecticut.”

“Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy,” Mr. Hutchinson said, according to Arkansas Talk Business & Politics.

Hundreds of protesters turned up at the state capitol Tuesday as the state House voted to send the bill to the governor, while critics launched an online “boycott Arkansas” campaign shortly after the measure passed.

The Arkansas bill “could allow any person to ignore state laws and cite their personal religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against others,” said the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, in a statement.

“The legislation is shameful, pure and simple. Gov. Hutchinson has a moral duty to veto this legislation, or his reputation will be forever stained by siding with a divisive political faction over the rights of his own people — and by dragging my home state toward the wrong side of history,” said Arkansas native and HRC President Chad Griffin.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and Axciom CEO Scott Howe have also urged the governor to veto the bill.

Twenty states and the federal government have passed RFRA laws dating back to 1993 with the signing of the federal bill by President Bill Clinton, but legal experts say the law has never been used to sanction discrimination.

At least two other states, Georgia and North Carolina, appear to be backing off earlier efforts to approve RFRA laws in the aftermath of the Indiana uproar.

Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, applauded the Arkansas bill and urged the governor to sign it.

“Courageously ignoring the rants of the intolerant left against this legislation, Arkansas’s Governor and legislators are standing up for the freedom of people to live out their beliefs,” Mr. Perkins said.

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