Two Arkansas Presbyterian ministers said the so-called “religious freedom” bill currently under consideration by the Arkansas legislature was discriminatory and anti-religious. 

They were among a number of speakers at an “emergency meeting” held Sunday night to discuss HB 1228 hosted by the Arkansas branch of the Human Rights Campaign at South on Main. I’m bad at estimating crowds, but the restaurant was entirely packed with overflow crowds listening and watching a video feed.


Rev. Robert Lowry, of First Presbyterian Church in Clarksville, described his church as the only one “in the Arkansas River Valley to publicly declare that all of God’s children, just as God made them, are welcome to come and be in God’s house.” He said he wasn’t a lawyer, so he couldn’t speak to the legal side of the law. But he said he’d stack his “13 years of post-graduate theological education up against Rev. Ballinger’s anytime.” 

“This bill is not representative of the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the promises of God for the children of God,” Lowry said. “This bill is what I called it this morning from my pulpit: It is blasphemy. It is an abomination, and it is an affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”


Lowry read from a  he’d sent to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

It said, in part:


“The free exercise of religion is one of the bedrock principles of American society and one of the greatest gifts of our Founding Fathers to the nation and the world. HB1228 strikes at the core of this cherished heritage and threatens the very liberty American’s hold so dear.

“One of the many things that make our society great and our freedoms the envy of the world is the protection afforded unpopular and even unusual points of view. Purportedly an attempt to protect just such freedoms, HB1228 threatens both the diversity and sanctity of our religious communities and their freedom from state interference.

This law establishes the legislative and judicial branches as arbiters of what is and is not sincere religious belief and what is and is not sufficiently orthodox to be ruled sincere. This has been and should remain the exclusive province of our religious communities.” 


Rev. Marie Mainard O’Connell, of First Presbyterian Little Rock, who you may remember from the time Sen. Bart Hester suggested she would go to hell if she disagreed with him, said we all should know that discrimination isn’t a religious value nor an American value. 

“The separation of church and state is enshrined in our constitution because not only does it protect religion from the state, but state from religion. It might not be very politic for me to admit that there might be some crazies in the boat with me and Jesus, but they’re there.”

She said it was time to stop being nice and start insisting that everyone be treated right. 


“Jesus died because of religious and political oppression, so when it comes to what we’re going to do next … whatever religious stripe you might be, it’s time for you to do something. The time for sitting on your hands, the time for sharing Facebook posts is over.”

Attorneys Barb Mariani and the ACLU’s Holly Dickson talked to the crowd about some of the potential consequences of the bill.

Dixon said its application could be sweeping, but jokingly, she said its breadth might allow an avenue for striking it down if it becomes law.   

“This law would create a brand new defense against every single law that we have on the books — criminal or civil. Now, the good news is that I think it’s broad enough that we could sue and say, ‘You know what, your law to require discrimination violates our religious liberty.’ 

“Like a lot of the bills we’ve seen this session there are probably about 15 different ways you could challenge these things, which makes it incredibly difficult to know where it’s going to come into play and how to strike it down.”

Dickson also suggested that HB 1228 was conceived as a safety net if SB 202, the act sponsored by Sen. Hester that prohibits municipalities from enacting civil rights ordinances, is struck down in courts. 

Mariani, a deputy prosecutor in Pulaski County, outlined a number of extreme ways the law could be used as a defense. She also said it’s likely to inspire bigotry.

“It emboldens all of the haters and bigots and discriminators to come out of the woodwork in Arkansas. And unfortunately they are here. You just don’t hear from them that much because it’s not socially acceptable. They will spew all of their hate and they will justify it under HB 1228.”

Former Attorney General Dustin McDaniel also made an appearance. He said he’d met recently with tech industry business people in New York, several of whom had already invested heavily in the state, and all they wanted to talk about was HB 1228.


“I love this state,” McDaniel said. “I love Arkansas, and I love what we have come to be and what our potential is. And HB 1228 is wrong for Arkansas. It’s wrong for who we are and it’s wrong for who we aspire to be.”