Arkansas governor says he won't sign religious freedom bill

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said Wednesday that he will not sign a religious freedom bill critics say would enable discrimination against gays and lesbians, backing down amid a growing outcry over similar legislation in Indiana.

"I am asking the Legislature to take a look at this bill, to recall it, or to provide me a changed bill that will make Arkansas [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] law mirror the federal law,” he said.

The move was a surprise, since Hutchinson had previously indicated he would sign the bill, which cleared the Arkansas Legislature this week.


But while Hutchinson said that he wanted to bring the law's language into alignment with the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he demurred when asked whether he supported adding language specifying that businesses would not be allowed to refuse service to gay people.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest criticized the Arkansas legislation, saying there has been an "outcry" against it because it "could be used to justify discriminating against individuals because of who they love.”

“Gov. Hutchinson is obviously responding to that outcry," Earnest said. "The next step will be for the leaders of Arkansas to determine."

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence (R) said Tuesday that he would ask the Legislature to "clarify" the intent of a similar religious freedom law, which has attracted widespread criticism, to say it did not enable discrimination.

Major corporations and national political figures have decried the Indiana law.

The NCAA, which will host the Final Four in Indianapolis this month, said that it was concerned about the impact that law might have on student-athletes.

Critics of the laws have noted that Arkansas and Indiana could simply pass anti-discrimination statutes that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to head off any problems caused by the “religious freedom” bills. But when asked about that possibility, Hutchinson said that was not his current focus.

“As to whether our civil rights law in Arkansas needs to be changed, that is a debate that’s going to happen, I want to focus on what is needed right now,” he said.

The events in Indiana cast a shadow over Hutchinson's Wednesday press conference.

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

He noted that the bill had divided families, including his own, along generational lines.

"My son Seth signed the petition asking me — dad, the governor — to veto this bill," he said.

The legislation in Arkansas — House Bill 1228 — has attracted its own share of criticism even as most of the national media attention was focused on Indiana.

Shortly before Hutchinson spoke, former secretary of State and likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (D) said he should exercise his veto.

On Tuesday, the CEO of Arkansas-based Wal-Mart asked Hutchinson to veto the bill.

— Jordan Fabian contributed.

— Updated at 1:17 p.m.