Arkansas governor urges changes to religious objection bill

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Ark. Governor Says 'Religious Freedom' Bill Needs Changes

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday called for changes to a religious objection measure facing a backlash from businesses and gay rights groups, saying it wasn't intended to sanction discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Republican governor said he wants changes to the bill that lawmakers sent him prohibiting state and local government from infringing upon someone's religious beliefs without a compelling interest. Hutchinson said he wants the Legislature to either recall the bill or pass a follow-up measure to make the proposal more closely mirror a 1993 federal religious freedom law.

"What is important from an Arkansas standpoint is one, we get the right balance and secondly, we make sure that we communicate we're not going to be a state that fails to recognize the diversity of our workplace, our economy and our future," Hutchinson said at a news conference at the state Capitol.

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Arkansas governor urges changes to religious objection bill
FILE - In this Monday, March 30, 2015 file photo,m Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, center, cheers with protesters outside of the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. A House committee earlier Monday advanced an amended version of a bill that opponents say allows discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Barbara Hall of Little Rock, far right, cheers with about 200 other demonstrators on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. The rally was in protest of a bill passed by the state House that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
The Rev. Linda Whitworth-Reed, left, talks with a demonstrator at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. Whitworth-Reed opposed a bill passed by the House Tuesday that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Demonstrators wave flags as they attend a rally at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in protest of a bill passed by the state House critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Demonstrators attend a rally on the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in protest of a bill that passed in the state House that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Sherrie Shepherd, left, and Noelle Harper attend a rally Tuesday, March 31, 2015, in front of the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., in protest of a bill that passed in the Arkansas House that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Demonstrators line the stairway leading to the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. The House on Tuesday passed an amended version of a bill that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Protestors display signs after a meeting of the House Committee on Judiciary at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015. The committee advanced an amended version of a bill that critics say would sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Protesters gather on the steps near the House chamber at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Monday, March 30, 2015. A House committee earlier Monday advanced an amended version of a bill that opponents say allows discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Chad Griffin, national president of the Human Rights Campaign, speaks at a news conference at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, March 26, 2015. Griffin and other participants at the event called upon Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson to veto a religious protection measure that opponents have said would open the door to state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, attends a rally held in protest of a bill that passed in the state House at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Tuesday, March 31, 2015. Leding opposed the bill that critics say will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
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Hutchinson initially supported the bill and on Tuesday his office had said he planned to sign it into law.

The move comes after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure into law last week. Pence this week said he wants follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law allows businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Hutchinson didn't specifically call for changes that would prohibit the law from being used to deny services to someone, but said he didn't believe the bill was intended to do so.

"This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination," Hutchinson said.

Similar proposals have been introduced in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.

Echoing the reaction to Indiana's law, Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state's top employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart, which complained that the measure was discriminatory and would stifle economic development. Little Rock's mayor, the city's Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas-based data services company Acxiom all urged the governor to reject the measure in recent days.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, has run ads in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson hopes to attract to the state.

Hutchinson noted how divisive the issue has become, saying his son Seth was among the people who had signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial, but these are not ordinary times," he said.

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