Remember last week when Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he was “looking at … utilizing an executive order … in terms of protecting against discrimination in the workplace for state government”?
Apparently, he’s taken a look, and it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
At a bill signing ceremony today, I had the chance to ask Hutchinson’s spokesperson, JR Davis, when we could expect some word on the executive order that the governor had mentioned last week. Davis said that the governor had “no plans on that right now.”
Since the legislature complied with his wishes on HB 1228 and reconfigured the bill’s language to make it correspond more closely to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it appears Hutchinson considers the matter closed for the time being.
“He’s pretty content with the legislation we’ve got,” said Davis. He added that the possibility of such an executive order was still “under consideration.”
Hutchinson indicated from the beginning that his motivation in potentially protecting LGBT state employees from discrimination was to communicate a message to the outside world, not because it was something he was enthused about doing. At the press conference last week on HB 1228, he said, “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.”
But also, by saying in the same statement last week that an executive order could “[protect] against discrimination in the workplace for state government,” Hutchinson acknowledged that the issue of protecting LGBT state employees isn’t just a piece of theater. It’s about real people, real jobs and real protections. Do we want to allow state agencies to discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, or do we not want to? Does Hutchinson want Arkansas to “be a place of tolerance” or not?
It’s really no surprise, but it seems likely that Hutchinson used the idea of an executive order to both threaten the hard social conservatives within his party with the truly horrible specter of the HB 1228 debate resulting in expanded rights for LGBT people, while simultaneously allowing the bill’s opponents to think of his qualified phrasings — “another option we’re looking at is…” — as a sign that the governor had had a true change of heart. That’s hardly the case, as indicated by the final piece of compromise legislation.