A withering round of national publicity and a belated outcry from powerful corporations brought Gov. Asa Hutchinson to heel on his professed support for legislation intended to establish religion as a pretext to discriminate in non-religious activities against gay people.
The result is a hurry-up compromise passed by the Senate last night and headed to the House today to have Arkansas adopt a “religious freedom” bill that closely tracks national legislation passed years ago to protect religious practices of some minority religions. It was NOT passed to allow religious groups to do harm to others in everyday activities, as the Arkansas bill was designed to do.
It protects the “free exercise” or religion from substantial government burden.
It says nothing about discrimination against gay people. Should it pass, the law will remain as the law in Arkansas stands today. You may legally discriminate against gay people in employment, housing or public accommodation because sexual orientation enjoys no civil rights protection in Arkansas.
That is the way the controlling majority of the legislature wants it. That’s why they earlier passed — and Gov. Hutchinson did not veto — a bill to prohibit local governments from extending civil rights to gay people. That’s why a bill to include gay people under the state civil rights statute was rudely dumped this session.
Hutchinson created this week’s drama by pushing Democratic Sen. David Burnett to allow the anti-gay bill out of committee in its original form. He said repeatedly that he supported the bill and would sign it. He did so in obedience to the Family Council, a Souther Poverty Law Center-identified hate group that holds discrimination against gay people high on its list of organizing principles, along with stripping women of medical autonomy.
This normally would have happened with little more than a whimper from the usual suspects (we’ve been inveighing against this bill for weeks). But a similar bill in Indiana produced a national firestorm that spread into Arkansas. Faced with universal condemnation from Silicon Valley and other high-tech giants — not to mention Walmart — Hutchinson folded. He’s no George Wallace, in the end, but he also deserves no trophy.
Gays remain second-class citizens in Arkansas. But if the House today completes action on a less odious version of a bill aimed at keeping them there, it is a victory. Because it will be a symbol that it is becoming less acceptable in polite business and society circles to wear your prejudice on your sleeve and even put them into law. Racial intolerance still lives in the U.S., despite the civil rights movement. But you don’t hear the N-word regularly in public discourse any longer. And the law prevents those (like the founder of the college from which Asa Hutchinson graduated) who believe the Bible demands racial separation from applying that belief in employment, housing and wedding cake baking.