February 25, 2015 at 7:13 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Arkansas religious discrimination bill fails in committee
Arkansas, gay news, Washington Blade

An Arkansas Senate panel failed to pass a religious bias bill. (Photo by Stuart Seeger; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A Senate committee in Arkansas on Wednesday voted down legislation that would have enabled individuals and businesses to deny services to LGBT people on religious grounds, but the bill isn’t dead yet, observers say, and other states are moving forward with similar anti-LGBT bills.

The Senate Judiciary Committee failed to approve House Bill 1228, which is among the many Religious Freedom Restoration Acts pending in state legislatures throughout the country amid successes for marriage equality in the courts. The House of Representatives, where the bill was introduced by Rep. Bob Ballinger, approved the legislation earlier this month.

The legislation doesn’t mention sexual orientation or gender identity, but is seen as a thinly veiled attempt at allowing individuals to claim a right to discriminate against LGBT people. It should be noted that state law already lacks protections for LGBT people.

According to the Arkansas Times, the committee voted 4-3 to approve the bill, but five votes are necessary for the panel to recommend the bill to the full Senate.

The bill failed after Gov. Asa Hutchinson — who this week allowed to become law Senate Bill 202, a bill that prohibits municipalities from enacting LGBT non-discrimination ordinances — expressed reservations about “a great deal of litigation” and unintended consequences as result of the legislation.

Moreover, Walmart, which is headquartered in Arkansas and is the largest private employer in the state, has come out against HB 1228 after criticizing SB 202 only at the 11th hour as the bill became law.

“While HB 1228 will not change how we treat our associates and operate our business, we feel this legislation is also counter to our 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,” Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez is quoted saying in the Associated Press.

Other organizations that oppose HB 1228 are the Arkansas Municipal League and the Association of Arkansas Counties. Fred Sainz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is set to launch a $25,000 digital and television ad purchase to urge lawmakers to oppose the measure.

But observers familiar with Arkansas politics say the defeat of HB 1228 isn’t the end of the legislation and supporters of the anti-LGBT measure could resurrect it in a number of ways.

Holly Dickson, an attorney at the ACLU of Arkansas, said they can try to get it passed in committee twice more and the Senate as a body could also pull it from committee for a floor vote.

John Reed, a spokesperson for the Arkansas Senate, said the “bill is not dead” and there are “several ways to keep plugging” away at it, including winning more support in committee for a successful vote at a later time.

“It’s not a hard and fast death for the bill,” Reed said, noting there’s still “plenty of time” in the legislative session to move forward with the measure.

Laura Phillips, an Arkansas LGBT activist and board member of the Fayetteville-based NWA Center for Equality, nonetheless claimed a temporary victory.

“Apparently, we blew up the phone lines,” Phillips said. “They still — from what I’ve heard — have a chance to bring it back out but Walmart spoke out against it and Hutchison was wary. So there is hope in the South for sanity.”

But as an anti-LGBT measure faced a setback in Arkansas, similar measures that could adversely affect LGBT people advanced Wednesday in other state legislatures.

WEST VIRGINIA — A House committee voted 16-8 to approve House Bill 2881, a bill similar to Arkansas’ SB 202 that would prohibit municipalities from passing LGBT non-discrimination ordinances.

“Since towns and cities began adopting LGBT nondiscrimination ordinances throughout West Virginia, LGBT West Virginians have been encouraged to come out of the shadows to lead happy, open lives in their communities,” Fairness West Virginia Executive Director Andrew Schneider said in a statement. “HB 2881 would turn the clock back on this progress and tarnish West Virginia’s reputation as a welcoming place to live and work.”

NORTH CAROLINA — The North Carolina Senate voted 32-16 to approve legislation that would enable magistrates and registers of deeds to opt out of providing legal marriage services or issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples for religious reasons.

Two Democrats — Ben Clark of Cumberland County and Joel Ford of Mecklenburg County — voted for the legislation, but two Republicans — Jon Alexander of Wake County and Sen. Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg — voted against it.

According to QNotes, a North Carolina-based LGBT publication, the Senate passed the measure after bill co-sponsor Buck Newton delivered a long-winded rant against LGBT rights.

“Who’s next? The baker? The florist?” Newton is quoted as saying. “We’ve already seen that. We have to find a path forward. We must find a way forward. I will not stand idly by and watch the demands of a few insist that particular magistrates must perform a wedding that he or she strongly believes is immoral. I will not stand by and force that to happen.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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