Friday, April 03, 2015

TOP STORY >> Lawmakers here in key roles on bill

Leader senior staff writer

Several local lawmakers were in the thick of the fray Wednesday and Thursday as the 90th General Assembly scrambled before adjourning to pass the “cleaner” Religious Freedom Restoration Act that Gov. Asa Hutchinson requested.

Hutchinson had said earlier in the week that he would sign House Bill 1228 as soon as he got it. But Arkansas got swept up along with Indiana’s legislature and governor in a whirlwind of bad press. Major corporations and even other states threatened to withhold business, travel and commerce over the bill, which purportedly would enable discrimination based on sexual orientation.

That’s when the governor pulled the plug on the first bill and asked for another one that reflected the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

His son, Seth, a Texas labor organizer, urged his father to veto the original bill and his nephew, state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, voted against it, but was lead sponsor for its replacement, SB975.

The bill was interpreted by many as allowing discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people under the flag of religious freedom.

Protests were held for several days at the state Capitol and a rabbi and several ministers held a prayer at the governor’s mansion.

While all the demonstrations and counter demonstraions made LGBT rights versus religious rights the focus, Rep. Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) said there were other sinister dangers hidden in plain sight in first bill.

She was a co-sponsor of SB975.

“The primary force behind that bill was to extend religious freedom to political action committees, lobbyists and others who want to control our corporations and our governments,” Bennett said Friday.

She said that any limited-liability corporation, church, group or political action committee could claim a religious belief, and then protect any behavior as a religious freedom. She said that could even include Satanists.

“That’s what was behind the bill the whole time,” she said. “It became clear that biggest push was to extend this to private parties.”

Bennett suggested other areas of concern in HB1228.

“Once I’ve thrown my religion up, the state couldn’t stop me,” she said. “And if I sued Walmart for selling birth control, the state might have to pay attorney fees, court costs and damages for an action by Walmart.

“It could be a religion of one—one with marijuana as a sacrament, or a church of Satan or the Church of Camille,” Bennett said.

Before the House over-whelmingly passed HB1228—the version the governor rejected—Bennett, a lawyer, took to the well to speak out against the bill, saying it overreached and went well beyond the federal RFRA.

To deaf ears she suggested replacing it.

When Hutchinson sent it back in favor of a bill closely approximating that federal bill, there was a great outcry from legislators who believed the governor had promised to sign it.

“That’s when everybody started realizing it wasn’t the federal RFRA,” she said. “My impression is that the majority always thought it was the federal RFRA,” said Bennett, who tried to tell them earlier.

There was anger from some who felt that if Hutchinson wasn’t going to sign it, he should veto it, Bennett said. “That’s where the rub came.”

Walmart, based in Arkansas, spoke out against that bill, as did the Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola and others said the bill would discourage people and commerce from locating to Arkansas.

Hutchinson asked the General Assembly to recall House Bill 1228 and send him a bill that approximated the 1993 federal RFRA passed while Bill Clinton was in office.

Upon signing SB975 Thurs-day, Hutchinson said, “What the new law does is protect religious freedom, establish a framework for the courts and recognize the diversity of our culture and workforce.”

State Rep. Josh Miller (R-Heber Springs), speaking against SB975, which passed and was signed into law Thursday afternoon, accused Hutchinson of “hiding behind the legislature.”

Senate President Pro Tempe Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) says he’s not sure he agrees with Bennett that the first bill would have extended religious protections to corporations, PACS or groups wanting to shield certain behaviors under the flag of religious freedom.

Dismang said that when HB1228 came up in the Senate, he was busy working on the budget and accepted the representation that it mirrored the federal RFRA.

“The governor had asked the House to consider some amendments prior the uproar,” he said. That bill “opened up a whole new realm of possibilities and no one knew the outcome.”

“I’m comfortable with SB975,” he said. “The process was ugly, the outcome good.”

Both the bill Hutchinson rejected and the one he signed were passed by similar—and significant—margins, with SB975 passing the Senate 26-0 and the House 76-17.

In the House, Bennett, Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sher-wood), Rep. Bob Johnson (D- Jacksonville), Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) and Rep. David Hillman (D-Almyra) voted in support of the bill.

Brown and Hillman were cosponsors.

Johnson didn’t vote for HB1228. “I felt like it opened the door for discrimination.”

He did vote for SB975, which mirrors the federal law.

Johnson said he would have preferred a bill like the one Indiana ended up with, which included a prohibition against discrimination, but that he can live the SB975.

“HB 1228 would have set us back 30 years,” Johnson said.

He said he was encouraged by the way both parties and both chambers and the governor worked together to get the new bill passed.

“I voted yes on HB1228, but no on SB975,” said Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin). He said both were good bills, with HB1228 a little stricter. He said he was prepared to vote for SB975 until state Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) rose on the House floor to say, “We have to thank the good people in the hallway.”

“That changed my mind,” Farrer said. “A lot of protesters called us names and spit on us,” he said.

“I might have taken it a little more personal than I should have.”

“I’m satisfied, I think we’re OK,” said Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock). English, a cosponsor of SB975, said there were some things in the original bill that the business community could have amended.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot). “It’s solid legislation for religious freedom for Arkansas. The first bill that went to the governor was a Rolls Royce. We ended up with a Cadillac.”

He said religious rights and the rights of LGBTs had to be balanced.

“Neither bill was a license to discriminate,” according to Brown. “When I was growing up I never dreamed a person’s religion could come under so much attack. I wouldn’t have thought to ask someone to do something that would bother his or her conscience.”

“The nice people in Indiana are just being abused,” Brown said. “My heart goes out to people that have religious convictions and then get sued. The bill doesn’t address specifically.”