New AR RFRA Still Empowers Discrimination, State Needs Comprehensive Non-Discrimination Protections

by HRC Staff

Arkansas needs comprehensive non-discrimination protection law; Governor Hutchinson should issue executive order protecting LGBT state employees

WASHINGTON — Today, the Arkansas legislature passed and Governor Asa Hutchinson signed legislation that improves the disastrous H.B. 1228 but falls short of providing needed non-discrimination protections to all Arkansans. Though an improvement, the legislation can still be used as a weapon to discriminate against LGBT people, people of color, minority faiths, women and other Arkansans at risk. The earlier legislation, H.B. 1228, is still on Governor Hutchinson’s desk, and HRC calls on the Arkansas House to recall that hateful bill immediately. HRC also calls on Governor Hutchinson to make good on his suggestion yesterday and issue an executive order protecting state employees from discrimination.

“The people of Arkansas spoke up in opposition to a discriminatory, mean-spirited bill, and the state's leaders backed away from the cliff,”  said Chad Griffin, an Arkansas native and the President of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization.  “Today, LGBT Arkansans are still unequal, and today’s battle points toward a broader struggle ahead--a fight where full and complete equality for all Arkansans that cannot be undermined is the only acceptable outcome. Today, we double down on that commitment, and those fighting for equality in the Natural State should feel encouraged that their efforts can and do make a difference.”

“The fact remains that the only way to ensure LGBT Arkansans are treated equally under state law is to add explicit protections for them,” said Sarah Warbelow, HRC’s Legal Director.  “Moving forward, Arkansas should explicitly clarify that the RFRA cannot be used to undermine non-discrimination protections at any level.  In addition, all states and the federal government should provide explicit non-discrimination protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, while well-intentioned, has been used in recent years to justify problematic behavior that harms third parties. We remain concerned that the federal RFRA and bills modeled after it may be used to undermine protections for the LGBT community and other minority groups. This new legislation could be used to undermine existing and future civil rights laws in the state, and that is unacceptable.”

The Governor’s signature concludes a weeklong outcry, where civil rights leaders, organizations and corporations all spoke out about the original H.B. 1228, including Apple and its CEO Tim Cook; Acxiom, one of Arkansas largest employers; Arkansas-based Wal-Mart; Yelp; PayPal; the Arkansas Municipal League and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Two members of the historic ‘Little Rock Nine’, Ernie Green and Carlotta Walls Lanier, who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School, also condemned the legislation, as well as civil rights leader Julian Bond.

In February, the Arkansas legislature passed S.B. 202, prohibiting municipalities from enacting non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people. Governor Hutchinson allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

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