April 2, 2015 at 10:55 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
Ind., Ark. governors sign compromises for religious freedom

Mike Pence, Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas, Indiana, Republican Party, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, Gov. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) (Photo of Pence by Gage Skidmore, courtesy Wikimedia Commons; photo of Asa Hutchinson public domain)

The governors of Arkansas and Indiana signed into law on Thursday compromise measures aimed at enabling religious freedom in their states, but minimizing the potential for anti-LGBT discrimination.

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who faced a massive outcry from LGBT advocates and the business community after he signed the initial bill last week, signed the compromise measure after calling for a legislative fix during a news conference earlier in the week.

“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?’” 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.”

The measure Pence signed into law makes clear the religious freedom law can’t used as the basis to deny employment services to LGBT people; while also making clear churches, ministers and non-profit religious are exempt from the fix.

It moved quickly in the legislature after Republican leaders in the legislature announced their proposal. The House passed the fix by a 66-30 vote, followed by the Senate moments later by 34-16 vote.

But LGBT advocates say the measure doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t contain explicit non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

After Pence signed the measure, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement saying the change was the result of intense pressure from supporters of LGBT rights in various walks of life.

“From the CEOs of some of the largest corporations in the world to small business owners in places like Evansville who declared they were ‘open for all,’ from four Indy PFLAG moms who gathered nearly 3,000 people on the steps of the Capitol last Saturday to the unprecedented full front page editorial from the Indy Star, to the nearly 80,000 emails sent to the Governor from people across the nation, the outcry of fair-minded Americans could not be ignored,” the statement says.

Meanwhile, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a religious freedom along the lines of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Although the legislature initially sent him a broader religious freedom bill along the lines of the Indiana law, House Bill 1228, he called on lawmakers to recall that bill in a news conference and to send him a measure along the lines of existing federal law.

Like the Indiana fix, the redraft of the Arkansas measure, Senate Bill 975, moved rapidly through the state legislature. Just before the legislative session ended, the Arkansas House voted 76-17 to pass the bill, which cleared the Senate late Wednesday

Rita Sklar, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, warned the new measure Hutchinson signed into law could still be used to enable discrimination against LGBT people.

“We are grateful that Gov. Hutchinson and members of the General Assembly have listened to the loud outcry in opposition to HB 1228 and have enacted a new proposal,” Sklar said. “But this new law fails to protect against the use of religion to discriminate against and harm others. Religious liberty is a fundamental value that the ACLU of Arkansas has been working to uphold since 1969. We will be vigilant and ensure that the shield of religious freedom doesn’t become a sword used to harm others in the State of Arkansas.”

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

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