Arkansas Approves its Own Religious Freedom Bill

The state of Arkansas in the USA has just approved the Religious Freedom bill, which is strikingly similar to the bill Indiana has recently come under fire for.

Critics of the new law believe that it will impact the rights of LGBT individuals because it allows businesses the ability to refuse to serve someone if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Effectively a business’s chosen faith can be used as a legal defence.

Democrats have said that the Arkansas bill “authorises discrimination” and despite the rather heated public debate (including numerous protests held within the state) the Republican-dominated house passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on Tuesday 31 March 2015.

Technically, for the measure to become law it requires the signature of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, but he has stated publicly that if it reaches his desk he would sign it.

Clark Tucker, a Democratic representative from Little Rock, Arkansas said: “I think everyone in the room is aware that this bill has attracted a lot of attention. I don’t believe it’s attracted that attention because it seeks to protect religious liberty. … I do believe it’s attracted a lot of public attention because it creates the perception that it affirmatively authorises discrimination.”

The approval of the law in Arkansas comes at a time when Indiana is facing growing pressure to change the legislation of its own Religious Freedom bill. Critics of the law include Apple (with its gay CEO Tim Cook writing a scathing editorial), Levi’s, the National Basketball Association, the White House and numerous celebrities including George Takei and Larry King.

Some companies have halted their plans of expansion within the state of Indiana, and even other governors have added their voices to the debate. The governors of New York, Washington State and Connecticut have banned state-funded travel to Indiana and other states which implement the Religious Freedom Restoration Act without a balancing law to protect LGBT people from discrimination.

The Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence

The Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence

As we reported yesterday, Mike Pence, the Indiana governor, in response to the opposition and concerns over Religious Freedom, has said that he intends to “clarify” the law. Unfortunately, it remains unclear how this clarification will work in practice.

The Democratic senator of Little Rock, Linda Chesterfield, was blunt in her statement: “Having grown up in the South … I know religious freedom has meant that slavery was okay. It has meant that Jim Crow was okay. It has meant that it was okay to keep people from achieving that which they deserved.” The Jim Crow laws were racial segregation laws which remained in place in the Southern US. states until 1965.

Micah Clark, executive director of the American Family Association in Indiana, has offered his voice of support for the Religious Freedom bill and said he feared “a capitulation that enshrines homosexual behaviour as a special right in Indiana.”

Another voice of support comes from the President of Family Research Council, Tony Perks: “The government shouldn’t force religious business and churches to participate in wedding ceremonies contrary to their owners’ beliefs.”