Arkansas Governor Says He Won't Sign 'Religious Freedom' Bill

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he will send the controversial legislation back to the statehouse, saying that "changes" must be made.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday that he will not sign the controversial "religious freedom" law that passed the state legislature two days ago.

The governor said during a press conference that his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires several tweaks so that it mirrors a similar law at the federal level, passed in 1993.

"I asked that changes be made in the legislation," Hutchinson said. "I've asked the leaders of the General Assembly to recall the bill so that it can be amended to reflect the terms of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act."

Arkansas's bill passed the state legislature on Monday. Though it hasn't quite risen to the level of scrutiny of its equivalent in Indiana, it has received heavy criticism.

"The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions," Hutchinson said.

He indicated that part of the debate stems from a "generational gap."

"My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill," Hutchinson said.

Supporters of the "religious freedom" laws in Arkansas and Indiana claim they protect people of faith from acting against their religious beliefs, but critics say they permit discrimination against LGBT individuals, allowing religious people to refuse them services. Neither Arkansas nor Indiana has statewide protections in place to prevent discrimination against people for their sexual orientation.

Arkansas passed its bill on the same day that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence gave a press conference addressing the controversy about his law. He said the legislation wasn't written as a "license to discriminate," but vowed to "clarify" it anyway. Hutchinson said on Wednesday that he believes the Arkansas law was also misconstrued.

Both bills say that the government cannot "substantially burden" a person's free exercise of their faith and that if a person feels their faith has been burdened, they can use the law in any pertinent legal action. The laws broaden the definition of a "person" to encompass not only individuals and organizations, but also for-profit businesses. And both allow the law to be used in private lawsuits, not just lawsuits involving the government.

The private-litigation provision is one of Hutchinson's sticking points. He said at the press conference that he wants to see simple language changes made—or additional legislation crafted—so that the bill as a whole more closely resembles the federal statute.

Earlier in the week, Hutchinson had indicated he'd sign the bill, and members of the Arkansas business community and several public figures associated with the state urged him not to follow through.

Just before Hutchinson began speaking on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton, a former first lady of Arkansas, urged the governor to veto the bill. "Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans," she tweeted.

On Monday, hours after the Arkansas legislature passed the bill, Walmart—one of the world's largest employers and a corporate gem of Arkansas, where it's headquartered—asked Hutchinson to veto it.

Two members of the Little Rock Nine—a group of students who in the late 1950s were the first to integrate into the town's Central High School—also came out against the bill, saying religion should not be used as a justification for discrimination.

Hutchinson said Wednesday that he's also considering an executive order that would clarify the bill's intentions. It must protect religious convictions while minimizing discrimination in the workplace and in public, he said.

"We want to be a place that has the right balance between religious protections and religious freedom and nondiscrimination," Hutchinson said.