LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CNS) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has signed into law a state Religious Freedom Restoration Act that mirrors the 1993 federal law.
The initial bill was opposed by groups that believed it went too far and could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians. When the state’s House and Senate approved that bill, Hutchinson refused to sign it and asked the representatives and senators to amend it to the exact language of the federal law.
On April 2, Hutchinson signed the revised bill, which prohibits the Arkansas government from substantially burdening people’s ability to practice their religion.
“This week the effort to enact an Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act was closely followed and analyzed within and outside our state,” said Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor in a statement issued after the governor signed the measure.
“Those ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposed bill passionately lobbied for their positions. In the end, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had to decide what was best for Arkansas,” the bishop said. “He used wisdom and prudence in calling for a state law that closely mirrored the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 that was passed and signed with scarcely an objection.”
The federal RFRA, as it is known, prohibits the federal government from substantially restricting a person’s religious freedom, except when it can demonstrate “a compelling government interest” and that the government’s action is “the least restrictive means” of furthering that interest.
It does not apply to the states, so many have passed their own RFRAs, with Arkansas and Indiana being the latest to do so.
Indiana’s version, signed into law March 26, met with a firestorm of protest by gay rights groups and others who said some of its language was vague and could interpreted to allow individuals and private companies to discriminate against gay people “on the very broad basis of ‘any exercise of religion.'”
Some opponents called for a boycott of the state and many business leaders criticized the law, which led Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to ask lawmakers to clarify language in the measure to ensure it would not give license to discriminate. On April 2 he approved the changes; the law goes into effect July 1.
In Arkansas, Bishop Taylor said that “religious liberty is our first and most cherished liberty” in the United States.
“It is a God-given right protected by our nation’s Constitution, federal law and now state law. Not only Catholics, but people of all religious faiths and worshipping communities in our country need to be free to live their faith and act according to their conscience without fear of government interference,” he said.
He urged “all people of good will” to be “vigilant in protecting our fundamental right of religious freedom” and added that RFRA is “but one of the mechanisms our nation uses to balance the competing but legitimate interests of citizens in our pluralistic society.”
Some view the Arkansas RFRA law, the bishop said, “as an attempt to condone invidious discrimination” against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community “based on religious beliefs, which the Catholic Church strongly opposes” and which the state RFRA “does not in fact do.”
“Choosing not to participate in certain ceremonies or activities due to religious convictions is not discrimination against the persons involved, nor is it necessarily an expression of hatred toward the persons involved” he continued. “Rather, it is very simply a choice to abstain from participating in conduct or actions that may be irreconcilable with one’s sincere religious beliefs, and it is the right to abstain from these actions which the Arkansas Religious Freedom Restoration Act seeks to protect.”
Bishop Taylor reiterated that the Catholic Church teaches that “all persons — including LGBT persons — have an inherent worth and dignity, and that all persons, precisely because they are persons, should be accorded dignity and respect.”