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Religious freedom legislation needs tweaks, Arkansas governor Hutchinson says

| Wednesday, April 1, 2015, 11:21 p.m.

LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson backed away Wednesday from his promise to sign a controversial religious objections bill, bowing to pressure from critics that included his son and some of the state's biggest employers, who claim 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 federal religious freedom law.

Hutchinson said 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.”

Hutchinson initially supported the bill, and on Tuesday, his office said he planned to sign it into law. But a day later, his position had changed.

“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.

He was the second governor in as many days to give ground to opponents of the legislation.

Once Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a similar measure last week, he and fellow Republicans endured days of sharp criticism from across the country.

Pence is now seeking follow-up legislation to address concerns that the law could allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

Hutchinson also faced pressure from the state's top employers, including Wal-Mart, which has asked for the bill to be vetoed.

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 business, 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.

Neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentions gays and lesbians, but opponents are concerned that the language contained in them 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. Indiana and 19 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 the governor said he did not believe the bill was intended to do so.

“This law that is under consideration does not extend discrimination,” Hutchinson said.

Legislators face a short window in which to act. The governor has five days after the bill is formally delivered to him to take action before it becomes law without his signature.

By the end of the day, the Senate Judiciary Committee had endorsed a version of the bill that lawmakers said would address Hutchinson's concerns. The full Senate was expected to take up the proposal later Wednesday.

The revised proposal would only address actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals.

Opponents of the law 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. Now opponents must “keep the pressure on.”

Conservative groups that sought 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.

In Indiana, Republican legislative leaders huddled behind closed doors for hours with Pence, business executives and other lawmakers, but did not come to an agreement on how to clarify the law.

The Indianapolis Star, which obtained a draft of the proposed language, reported that it would specify that the law cannot be used as a legal defense for refusing to provide services, goods or accommodations based on a person's sexual orientation.

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