LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson backed away Wednesday from his promise to sign a controversial religious-objections bill, bowing to pressure from critics, including some of the state’s biggest employers, who say the legislation is anti-gay.
The Republican governor said he wants the Legislature either to recall the bill from his desk or pass a follow-up measure that would 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.
Hutchinson initially supported the bill, and on Tuesday, his office said he planned to sign it into law.
But by Wednesday, his position had changed. After Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure last week, Pence and fellow Republicans endured days of sharp criticism. The Indiana governor is now seeking follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law could allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
Hutchinson has also faced pressure from the state’s top employers, including Wal-Mart, which a day earlier asked the governor to veto the bill. Little Rock’s mayor, the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas-based data services company Acxiom have all urged the governor to reject the bill.
Other big names in businesses, including Apple, Gap and Levi Strauss, have also spoken out against the religious-objection measures.
Experts say companies are increasingly concerned about any laws that could alienate customers, hurt state economies or limit employers’ ability to attract and retain talent.
Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is particularly influential because it is the world’s largest retailer and the nation’s largest private employer.
Hutchinson noted how divisive the issue has become, saying his son Seth was among those who signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.
“This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial,” the governor said. “But these are not ordinary times.”
Neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentions gays and lesbians, but opponents are concerned that their language could offer a legal defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.
Supporters insist the law will only give religious objectors a chance to bring their case before a judge.
Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, with some differences. Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books.
Hutchinson did not specifically call for changes that would prohibit the law from being used to deny services, but said he did not believe the bill was intended to do so.
“This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination,” Hutchinson said.
The governor also said he was looking at signing an executive order preventing workplace discrimination by state agencies.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was looking at making changes as an amendment to a bill that was originally intended to prohibit foreign laws from being applied in state courts, said Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, chairman of the panel and the governor’s nephew.
Opponents of the law said they were waiting to see what the proposed changes would do, but were encouraged by Hutchinson’s comments.
“What’s clear is the governor has been listening,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group. “The governor listened to business leaders in this state and around the country, and the governor listened to tens of thousands of Arkansans. …. Now what we have to do is keep the pressure on.”
Conservative groups that had been pushing for the measure questioned the need for any changes.
“I’m very puzzled at this point to see why the bill would need to be amended at this late date, considering everybody in the chamber has had a chance to see it,” said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. “I think it’s been thoroughly vetted and it’s a good law.”
The lawmakers behind the proposal said they were open to discussions but stopped short of saying they would support any changes.
“We’re going to go to work on it,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville said.
Legislators face a short window to address Hutchinson’s concerns. The governor has five days to take action on the bill before it becomes law without his signature. Lawmakers had hoped to wrap up this year’s session by Thursday.
Removing the bill from Hutchinson’s desk will require a simple majority in the 100-member House, but reversing the votes that gave the measure final approval needs the support of at least 67 members.
Associated Press Writer Allen Reed contributed to this report.