Arkansas lawmakers approved a religious-freedom bill similar to the one recently passed in Indiana that critics say creates the potential for businesses and others to legally discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
“The Arkansas and Indiana bills are virtually identical in terms of language and intent,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign. “They place LGBT people, people of color, religious minorities, women and many more people at risk of discrimination.”
The Arkansas House voted 67-21 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which follows the state senate’s approval of the bill Friday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s office did not immediately respond to the bill’s passing, but has previously said he would sign it into law when it reaches his desk. His spokesman said the governor would make a statement Wednesday.
Protesters gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Little Rock on Tuesday morning in anticipation of the House vote.
Arkansas-based mega-retailer Walmart also came out against the bill, and urged the governor to veto it.
“Today’s passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.
The Indiana law, enacted last week, and the proposed Arkansas law were presented as ways to keep government from infringing on religion. But opponents say they could be used as cover for discrimination, allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers.
Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of Apple, led widespread corporate opposition to the law in Indiana, and the NCAA, which is staging the Final Four in Indianapolis this week, hinted that it would think twice about bringing future events there.
The governors of New York, Connecticut and Washington suspended some government travel from their states to Indiana.
“They knew what they were doing. They were going to make it legal to refuse to serve gay men and women,” Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy told MSNBC on Tuesday. “Somebody has to call them on it.”
The CEO of Acxiom, a data services company with headquarters in Little Rock, wrote in an open letter to Gov. Hutchinson that the bill “inflicts pain on some of our citizens and disgrace upon us all.”
And protesters at the Capitol on Monday held signs saying “Discrimination is not a Christian Value” and “Discrimination is a Disease.”