Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Religious Freedom Anchors The Ark!

Arkansas Republicans passed its version of religious freedom law and its state governor Asa Hutchinson will sign it into law despite outcry from activists and Walmart.

Governor Mike Pence (R) of Indiana is under intense pressure after he signed into state law this Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill that could protect bigoted business if they ban LGBT and non-religious residents. The law would be seen as a backdoor to outright discrimination.

Pence signed it into law last Monday and has been under fire since its signing.

National companies and even the city of Indianapolis' Republican mayor have called upon Pence to reconsider his decision. Pence has no intentions to call for a repeal of the law. However he's going to try to put a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. He call upon Indiana lawmakers to amend the law to make it clear that no business shall be allowed to discriminate against anyone in his state.

Of course, the damage is done. Many entertainers, state governors and the NCAA have already threatened to bail out on Indy.

With the national championship game for Division I basketball being held in the state. Many athletes from both men and women's college basketball have quietly barked while allowing the coaches and board leaders bite.

Take it about 580 miles down to Little Rock where Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson will sign his state's version of Religious Freedom Restoration.

About a few months into his term, Hutchinson sparked controversy. Hutchinson, a former congressman and attorney for the NRA won the governorship in 2014. He's from a political dynasty that carries from Fort Smith all the way to Washington, DC.

The Huffington Post reports that Walmart, a stable of Arkansas' economy isn't pleased with this decision. The Bentonville-based company has called for Hutchinson to not sign the law.

The bill cleared the Arkansas Legislature and now heads to the governor's desk, where it is expected to be signed. Like the Indiana law, the Arkansas legislation allows a person who feels his or her exercise of religion has been “substantially burdened” to cite that argument as a claim or defense in a private lawsuit. The legislation also grants corporations the right to religious freedom. This language is not in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and critics say it could be used to override existing anti-discrimination protections.
Walton's 5-10 store is the first Walmart. Its location is in Bentonville, Arkansas. The area seen a rise in growth. Bentonville and Fayetteville are growing cities. The University of Arkansas, Walmart corporate headquarters sit on the Insterstate 49 corridor. The interstate replaced Interstate 540 and it will eventually travel from Kansas City to Lafayette, Louisiana.
"The Arkansas and Indiana bills are virtually identical in terms of language and intent,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign. “They place LGBT people, people of color, religious minorities, women and many more people at risk of discrimination.”

Earlier in the week, Arkansas lawmakers also tried to head off concerns about that state's bill, approving language that says “the General Assembly finds that it is a compelling governmental interest to comply with federal civil rights laws.”

However, according to Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU, federal civil rights laws have no explicit protections for LGBT people, and this legislative finding -- while helpful -- is not part of the law. “If the Arkansas Legislature is serious about preventing discrimination, they need to write it into the actual code,” she said.

“We would like to see both Indiana and Arkansas adopt language clarifying that the state RFRA cannot be used to undermine federal, state or local non-discrimination laws," Warbelow said.

During Monday's committee hearing, some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill being inconsistent with federal and state RFRA laws when it comes to protecting civil rights. Some proposed a simple solution: adding a non-discrimination disclaimer to the legislation.

"It's not a philosophical debate with me at this point. I think we're going well beyond the other states," said state Rep. Camille Bennett (D), who ultimately voted against the bill.

But the bill's author, state Rep. Bob Ballinger (R), said its language was staying put, and that it would be too confusing to try to define what constitutes discrimination.

"If that means that you can force somebody who has deeply held religious beliefs to engage in some activity that violates their deeply held religious beliefs, and that the state has the right to force them into doing it, I can't say that I do agree with that," he said.

Arkansas is about to enter the same minefield that Indiana has been trapped in since Pence signed his religious freedom bill last week. In Indiana, major companies like Twitter and the NCAA, as well as celebrities like Apple CEO Tim Cook and Miley Cyrus, have spoken out against the law.

In Arkansas, both Walmart and Acxiom, a big data company, have spoken out against the legislation. The Democratic mayor of Little Rock also warned Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) on Tuesday that “any piece of legislation that is so divisive cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people.”

But Hutchinson appears unfazed by these concerns. Last week, he vowed that he would sign the legislation: “Arkansas is open for business, and we recognize and respect the diversity of our culture and economy,” he said in a statement.

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