By Michael Muskal
The governors of Arkansas and Indiana on Thursday quickly signed revised versions of their respective religious freedom laws, hoping to quell a national uproar that united business leaders and gay rights activists who fought the measures as potentially discriminatory.
Proponents of the laws argued that they were needed to protect religious freedom, while critics complained that the laws would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians who could be deprived of goods and services in the name of religious belief. Although neither of the original laws mentioned gays or lesbians, many of their conservative backers have opposed same-sex marriage.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the modified bill after sending the measure back to the state Legislature early this week. He asked that the new measure closely reflect a 1993 federal law signed by President Clinton that was the first of the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts.
"This mirrors the federal law," the Republican governor said at the live-streamed signing ceremony. "That was the objective. We did that."
The Arkansas House approved the bill, 76 to 16, after reaching a legislative compromise earlier in the day. The state law, like the federal, prohibits state and local government from infringing on someone's religious beliefs without a compelling interest.
Both Arkansas and Indiana came under fierce pressure from local and national business leaders who argued the laws were too restrictive and would hurt future economic development. In Arkansas, retail giant Wal-Mart called for a veto of the original law, while high-tech companies including Apple led the Indiana fight.
Indiana broadened the federal law to allow both individuals and businesses to claim in court that their religious beliefs prevented them from providing goods or services to some groups.
The Indiana opposition gained power when the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. raised questions about the original law. Earlier Thursday, the NCAA said it backed the amendments.
Indiana, which passed its measure first and enacted it into law last week, took the brunt of the national criticism. Some opponents of the law say the changes do not go far enough in protecting against discrimination, and proponents say religious liberties are still threatened.
The amendment is "a very strong statement to [ensure] that every Hoosier's right will be protected," House Speaker Brian Bosma, an Indianapolis Republican, said at a news conference where the new language was unveiled. The law "cannot be used to discriminate against anyone."
The amendment offers some protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the first time an Indiana law has addressed the issue. But the amendment stops short of being a separate anti-discrimination law, which some critics of the law had sought. Indiana has anti-discrimination laws, but they do not cover cases involving sexual orientation.
The Human Rights Campaign, a national advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said more battles would come.
"Though this legislation is certainly a step back from the cliff, this fight is not over until every person in Indiana is fully equal under the law," said Chad Griffin, the group's president. "At the federal level and in all 50 states, the time has come in this country for comprehensive legal nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people that cannot be undermined."
The new version of the law, while a concession to liberal and business concerns, was also criticized by proponents of the law. Eric Miller of Advance America, one of the primary supporters of the law, vigorously opposed the change.
"What we're talking about is a Hoosier businessman or -woman, mom-and-pop operation, a widow lady that runs a flower shop, to be able to say, 'I have sincerely held religious beliefs against being involved in a homosexual wedding, and I'll be glad to refer you to someone else; but please, I can't do that. That would violate my religious beliefs,'" Miller told reporters.
"What the [law] does is to give that widow lady, that mom-and-pop operation, the opportunity, if they're dragged into court ... to be able to say, 'I have a sincerely held religious belief.' ... What it does is protect religious freedom for all. If you have a homosexual baker, a homosexual florist, a homosexual photographer, and they say we do not want to participate in heterosexual weddings, that's their right" under the first version of the law.
But the proposed amendment was praised by business and sports leaders.
"The future of Indiana was at stake," Bart Peterson, a senior vice president at Eli Lilly & Co. and former mayor of Indianapolis, said at the news conference. "The healing needs to begin right now."
"It was really a grass-roots response from our employees," Scott McCorkle, chief executive of Salesforce Marketing Cloud, told The Times in an interview. "It really lit a fire with me."
This weekend, Indianapolis will host the NCAA basketball championships, and criticism from the collegiate organization was especially telling. In a statement, the group's president, Mark Emmert, praised the changes.
"We are very pleased the Indiana Legislature is taking action to amend Senate Bill 101 so that it is clear individuals cannot be discriminated against," he said. "NCAA core values call for an environment that is inclusive and nondiscriminatory for our student-athletes, membership, fans, staff and their families. We look forward to the amended bill being passed quickly and signed into law expeditiously by the governor."
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