This post has been updated substantially.
The Senate advanced two identical bills that were amended today to reflect the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Gov. Asa Hutchinson, in a press conference this morning, called on legislative leaders to change the controversial HB 1228 to mirror the federal RFRA. He said it would aid in showing the world that Arkansas “does not discriminate and understands tolerance.”
The bills advanced today aim to replace HB 1228. The House Judiciary Committee will consider the amended bills at 10 a.m. tomorrow. If the committee votes to advance the bill (and it almost certainly will), the full House will likely consider them tomorrow afternoon.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (and nephew of the governor), said the two pieces of legislation, SB 229 and SB 975, were the bills with titles that most corresponded with the intent of HB 1228, according to Capitol attorneys. Sen. John Cooper, the primary sponsor of SB 229, was amenable to an amendment to replace the original text of his bill, which was initially intended to protect Arkansas from Sharia law. According to Sen. Jim Hendren and Sen. Hutchinson, however, Sen. Gary Stubblefield, the sponsor of SB 975, was noncommittal and then unreachable. He was not in the Senate chamber for tonight’s vote. According to Hendren, Rep. Bob Ballinger, the primary sponsor of HB 1228, believes that only the title of Stubblefield’s bill will hold up in a potential court challenge and would only support an amended SB 975, rather than an amended SB 229. Because of that, the Senate Judiciary Committee added a “hostile” amendment to SB 975 to move that bill forward.
All of this is necessary because we’ve long since passed the filing deadline of the legislative session, which is the date after which no new bills can be filed. However, new amendments can be filed up until the end of the session, and an amendment can, in practice, make almost any change
any change to a bill that’s already been filed previously.
An amendment can remove every bit of language from the original bill and rewrite it into something entirely new — which is what happened in this case — but as a blog commenter noted on an earlier version of this post, it’s not supposed to deviate completely from the original intent stated on the bill. That’s why these particular ones were chosen as the vehicles to be turned into the replacements to HB 1228. It’s their titles that is important; whatever those bills contained beforehand is now immaterial.
Why two bills? Stubblefield does not approve of the amendment to SB 975, according to several senators who spoke on the floor. Sen. Hutchinson said he had spoken to Ballinger, and Ballinger promised not to sponsor SB 975 if Stubblefield won’t agree to the amendment. Sen. Hutchinson said he hoped Ballinger and Stubblefield could work out an agreement. He said the amended SB 229 was a backup. It’s unclear whether Ballinger’s opposition to SB 229 would derail this compromise if Ballinger and Stubblefield can’t come to an agreement on SB 975.
The Senate advanced SB 229, including an emergency clause, 26-6. It advanced SB 975 and its emergency clause 26-0.
Before the vote on SB 975, president pro tem Sen. Jonathan Dismang said HB 1228 had incorporated language from recent court cases into its provisions. SB 229 removed those provisions to more closely mirror the federal RFRA.
“The ultimate result changes nothing with regard to the religious freedoms, which is what we’re trying to accomplish here and trying to protect,” Dismang said.
Sens. Bryan King and Terry Rice complained about the process. Rice said he didn’t think it was appropriate for Gov. Asa Hutchinson to suggest that he wasn’t on board with the language of HB 1228 throughout the process.
Sen. Jason Rapert said he was opposed to the manner in which Stubblefield’s bill was amended, but was ultimately supporting it because he thought a RFRA law was important.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to take extreme action to another member’s bill. I just think it’s wrong.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved amendments to SB 229 and SB 975, which, evidently, attempt to mirror the federal “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and replace HB 1228, as requested by Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier today at a press conference.
The bills advanced out of committee, and the full Senate voted to engross the bills (that is, approve the amendments) around 6:30 p.m. Here’s the amendment to SB 975.
The co-sponsors on this amendment are quite a mix of Rs and Ds. It looks like a deal has been struck: We’ve got Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield (progressive Democrat and among the loudest opponents of HB 1228) joined with Rep. Bob Ballinger and Sen. Bart Hester (the sponsors of HB 1228) to put their names on SB 975.
The chair of the committee, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who was another cosponsor, said the new language mirrors the 1993 federal RFRA except for exemptions applied to the Department of Correction, the Department of Community Correction, county jails and other detention facilities.
Leslie Peacock is on the scene. Before the amendments were distributed, members and lobbyists had been huddling and coming in and out of the committee room for over an hour. Sen. Joyce Elliott played REM’s “Everybody Hurts” and Cee-Lo’s “Crazy” on her iPad. Jerry Cox, president of the Arkansas Family Council, paced the room.
Cox told Leslie he was not aware there was a problem with the bill until today. He noted that the bill had been “thoroughly vetted” for two months and amended at the governor’s request. So he was surprised by the governor’s news conference.
It’s fun to mention that SB 229 was intended to protect Arkansas citizens from Sharia Law, sponsored by Sen. John Cooper (R-Jonesboro). That represents some deep level of irony that we can’t quite grasp in our current fatigued state.
SB 229 was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in the past. “This issue could come up in other realms besides Sharia, that’s just an example,” Cooper told Arkansas News at the time. “This legislation was passed in Oklahoma and in that case it did mention Sharia. It was struck down as discriminatory. In this bill it is generic as ‘foreign law’ and does not carve out any group. It just sets as our public policy the protection of our citizens for due process.”
This post has been modified significantly since its original publication to reflect developments over the course of the afternoon.