Arkansas follows Indiana into 'religious freedom' fight

From the NCAA to Wal-Mart and Apple, businesses around the country are objecting to Indiana’s new 'religious freedom' law, which critics say is discriminatory. Arkansas is about to pass a similar law.

Michael Conroy/AP
A window sign on a downtown Indianapolis florist shows it's objection to the Religious Freedom bill signed by Gov. Mike Pence. Critics say it discriminates against gay people.

Indiana was the focus of harsh news this week when Gov. Mike Pence signed a “religious freedom” act and much of the business and political world erupted in criticism.

Those opposed to the law, which allows businesses to refuse service to potential customers and clients on religious grounds, say it’s a clear shot at the LGBT community – in particular those advocating or wanting to participate in same-sex marriage.

Now, Arkansas is beginning to experience the same response. The state senate passed a similar bill, which already had been passed by the state house of representatives.  (Both chambers are Republican-controlled.) Governor Asa Hutchinson (R) says he’ll sign the law, which declares that "governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification."

Two major US companies, retailer Wal-Mart (which has its home office in Bentonville, Ark.) and Apple have made it clear where they stand.
 “Every day, in our stores, we see firsthand the benefits diversity and inclusion have on our associates, customers and communities we serve. It all starts with the core basic belief of respect for the individual. And that means understanding and respecting differences and being inclusive of all people,” Wal-Mart said in a statement. “We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief and sends the wrong message about Arkansas.”
 Apple CEO Tim Cook, referring to the measures in the two states, said in a tweet: "Apple is open for everyone. We are deeply disappointed in Indiana's new law and calling on Arkansas Gov. to veto the similar HB1228."

Back in Indiana, Hollywood celebrities piled on.

Ashton Kutcher tweeted: “Indiana are you also going to allow Christian establishments to ban Jews from coming in? Or Vice Versa? Religious freedom??? #OUTRAGE”

“Outraged over Indiana Freedom to Discriminate law, signed today,” tweeted George Takei of Star Trek fame. “LGBTs aren't 2nd class citizens. #BoycottIndiana #Pence”

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (who’s a Republican) and local employers – including Alcoa, Cummins, Eli Lilly & Co., and Salesforce – have spoken out against the law as well.

Such laws – other states have passed or are considering them – typically require state government to have a “compelling interest” before it can “substantially burden” personal religious practice.

The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign (HRC) warns that such laws “are often incredibly vague and light on details – usually intentionally. “

“In practice, most of these bills could empower any individual to sue the government to attempt to end enforcement of a non-discrimination law,” HRC says in a report. “The evangelical owner of a business providing a secular service can sue claiming that their personal faith empowers them to refuse to hire Jews, divorcees, or LGBT people. A landlord could claim the right to refuse to rent an apartment to a Muslim or a transgender person.”

Meeting with reporters after the private bill signing in his office Thursday, Gov. Pence said, “There has been a lot of misunderstanding about this bill. This bill is not about discrimination, and if I thought it legalized discrimination in any way I would've vetoed it."

Indiana’s new law comes just as the Indianapolis-based NCAA heads toward its final four men’s basketball tournament in that city. NCAA officials are clear in their opposition to the law, hinting that it might mean serious consequences for the organization’s relationship with Indiana.

“We will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “Moving forward, we intend to closely examine the implications of this bill and how it might affect future events as well as our workforce."

The White House weighed in on the issue Friday. Press secretary Josh Earnest said, "The signing of this bill doesn't seem like it's a step in the direction of equality and justice and liberty for all Americans.”

Hundreds of people gathered outside the Indiana Statehouse Saturday to rally against the state's new law, the Associated Press reports. The crowd chanted "Pence must go" and held signs reading "I'm pretty sure God doesn't hate anyone" and "No hate in our state."

Around Indiana, stickers reading "This Business Serves Everyone" were seen in many shop windows.

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