Could a compromise be brewing on HB 1228, the so-called “religious conscience” bill that opponents argue would offer additional legal protection for discrimination against gay people? The following is what we can report based on multiple sources at the Capitol speaking on background:
Gov. Asa Hutchinson appears to be looking for a way out of the current controversy. Particularly with the increasing volume of media coverage and corporate backlash around the similar law in Indiana, the governor has real concerns about the law’s impact on economic development, sources say.
In separate meetings this morning, the governor and his chief of staff, Michael Lamoureux, met with two backers of the bill — Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Bob Ballinger — and two opponents of the bill — Rep. Warwick Sabin and Sen. Joyce Elliott.
The governor is potentially interested in the concept, also floated by Gov. Mike Pence in Indiana, of adding a “clarification” amendment to the bill that would expressly state that the law does not authorize discrimination or make it lawful to discriminate. The amendment would expressly list various categories — race, religion, old age, etc. — and would include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Given that Ballinger and the bill’s proponents have said over and over that the bill is not intended to protect discrimination — indeed, he claims it’s only about preventing discrimination — this would appear to be a change in line with their stated purpose, but sources say they are still resistant to such an amendment (Ballinger rejected the idea yesterday in committee and thus far today has given every indication that he plans to proceed with the bill as is). Hutchinson is reportedly making the pitch around the effort to recruit business to the state, but it’s unclear at this stage whether the governor’s muscle can push a compromise through.
Ballinger may be reluctant to back down and cave after so strongly rejecting the idea of an amendment. More cynically, it’s possible that the groups like the Family Council pushing the bill would prefer that it offer additional protections to Christians discriminating against gay people, in which case the clarifying amendment would defeat one of their purposes. Again, Ballinger has insisted that’s not the case; read between the lines as you like. Of course, with such an amendment, Ballinger would probably be particularly unhappy about a law that he sponsored including explicit protections for gay and transgender people found nowhere else in the Arkansas code.
HB 1228 opponents who are now backing a compromise argue that this is the best way forward given the limited time left in the session. They also project that Pence in Indiana is likely to pursue a similar strategy based on his press conference this morning. One argument they made to Hutchinson for compromise is that HB 1228 was dissimilar to other “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” laws in other states because Arkansas has no protection in the law for discrimination against LGBT people (unlike, for example, a state like Illinois) so this amendment was necessary for clarification.
The bill is on the agenda this afternoon in the full House. I’ll update in a separate post if anything happens.