Danny Johnston / AP

Arkansas lawmakers set to vote on controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill

Critics say law would allow business owners to deny service to gay people, citing religious beliefs

Legislators in Arkansas are set to vote as early as Tuesday on a "religious freedom" bill that opponents say will allow for open discrimination based on someone's sexuality. A similar law passed in Indiana last week has sparked protests across the state and may have cost it millions of dollars in investments.

The Arkansas bill, which has drawn criticism from rights activists and business leaders alike, states that "governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification."

If passed, critics say, it would allow for business owners to discriminate against LGBT people. A catering company, for example, would be allowed to deny service to a same-sex couple planning a wedding if doing so would violate the religious beliefs of the owner.

Supporters, however, say the bill is not about discrimination but protection of citizens’ religious values.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas' anti-discrimination protections. Last month Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.

Hundreds of protesters filled Arkansas' Capitol on Monday to oppose the state’s “religious freedom” bill. Some held signs that read "Discrimination is not a Christian value" and "Discrimination is a disease." Others chanted "Shame on you."

"I believe that many people will want to flee the state and many people will want to avoid our state," said Rita Jernigan, a protester and one of the lead plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit challenging Arkansas' gay marriage ban. "I think it will hit us hard everywhere. I feel like we're moving backwards rather than being a progressive state."

Two of the most powerful companies in the United States — retailer Walmart, which has its home office in Arkansas, and technology giant Apple — have also criticized the bill.

"We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief of respect for the individual and sends the wrong message about Arkansas as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state," a Walmart spokesman said in a statement.

The protests echo the backlash seen in Indiana, where Republican Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar bill into law last week. Some companies, including recommendation site Angie’s List, reacted to the law by halting expansion plans in the state.

Republican legislators in Indiana said they were working on language to clarify that the new law does not discriminate against gays.

Hutchinson, who had expressed reservations about unintended consequences of an earlier version of the Arkansas bill, said he will sign the current measure into law without altering the language.

Similar “religious freedom” bills, based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, have been introduced in more than a dozen U.S. states. Nineteen states already have similar laws on the books.

National gay-rights groups say the laws allow politicians to sanction discrimination as the Supreme Court prepares to mull the legality of gay marriage.

Wire services

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