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Arkansas governor seeks changes to his state's bill

April 1, 2015

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday called for changes to a religious freedom measure facing a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups, saying it wasn't intended to sanction discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Republican governor said he wants changes to the bill that lawmakers sent him prohibiting state and local government from infringing upon someone's religious beliefs without a compelling interest. Hutchinson said he wants the Legislature to either recall the bill or pass a follow-up measure to make the proposal more closely mirror a 1993 federal religious freedom law.

"What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance and secondly, we make sure that we communicate we're not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

Hutchinson initially supported the bill and on Tuesday his office had said he planned to sign it into law.

The move comes after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure into law last week. Pence this week said he wants follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law allows businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Hutchinson didn't specifically call for changes that would prohibit the law from being used to deny services to someone, but said he didn't believe the bill was intended to do so.

"This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination," Hutchinson said.

Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

Echoing the reaction to Indiana's law, Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state's top employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart, which complained that the measure was discriminatory and would stifle economic development. Little Rock's mayor, the city's Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas-based data services company Acxiom all urged the governor to reject the measure in recent days.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson hopes to attract to the state.

Hutchinson noted how divisive the issue has become, saying his son Seth was among the people who had signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times," he said.

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