At a news conference today, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he wanted Arkansas’s so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” to more accurately reflect the federal RFRA. He said he had asked legislative leaders to either recall HB 1228 so it can be amended or advance additional legislation that would accomplish changes that would make the law more closely mirror the 1993 federal law.
See the governor’s full remarks here.
Unlike the federal RFRA law, Arkansas’s expressly allows lawsuits in situations between private parties, when the government is not involved. There is legal debate on whether, despite not explicitly saying so, the federal RFRA law actually does apply to private parties.
Hutchinson also raised the possibility of an executive order regarding anti-discrimination.
“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” Hutchinson said. “But these are not ordinary times. This bill is not really complicated. … It’s balancing test. The bill itself does not pick winners and losers, it balances two competing constitutional obligations that our founding fathers gave to us. But the issue has become divisive.”
Hutchinson said the bill speaks to a generational divide.
“It has divided families and there is clearly a generational gap. My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill. It shows that there is a generational difference on these opinions.”
He said he’d asked for changes throughout the process.
“In some instances they were accommodated and made. In other instances they said no. That’s the balance between the executive and legislative branch.”
But he said changes still need to be made.
“It is important to remember that this bill as it is currently drafted does not change who we are. It does not change the current protections against discrimination. This bill simply defines the standard to determine the right balance. But how do we as a state communicate to the world that we are respectable of a diverse workplace and want to be known as a state that does not discriminate and understands tolerance? That is the challenge we face.
“Making this law like the federal law will aid us in that effort in communication, but also was my original objective from the beginning.
“Another option we’re looking at is utilizing an executive order, which interestingly, has not been utilized, from my research, from the executive branch in state government in terms of protecting against discrimination in the workplace for state government. But we’re looking at an executive order to aid in that communication and make it clear that Arkansas wants to be a place of tolerance. We want to be a place that has the right balance between religious freedoms and nondiscrimination.”
After his remarks the governor was asked repeatedly about the reason for his midnight-hour turnabout, given his acknowledgement that it needed to be amended to “minimize the chance of discrimination in the workplace.” The bill’s discriminatory language has always been in the bill — though as it was pointed out at the press conference it was characterized by its sponsor to be no different from federal law — so why was the governor acting now? “It was a learning process,” the governor said. “We heard from constituents and business leaders.” When Walmart speaks, apparently, Hutchinson listens.
The governor also said he had received no commitment from leadership to the changes he wants to see made to the bill.
After the press conference, Sponsor Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, was seen behind glass office doors talking with great animation on his cell phone. He finally emerged, saying only to reporters that “I feel real good about” the direction of the bill. “We’re going to get it worked out.”
*This post has been substantially updated and edited.