LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS – The Arkansas Senate overwhelmingly approved on Friday a Republican-backed bill that, according to its authors, is intended to protect religious freedoms but which critics contend could allow businesses to refuse service to gay people.
The Republican governor of Indiana signed into law a similar “religious freedom” bill on Thursday, prompting protests from human rights groups and criticism from some business leaders.
The bill advancing in the Republican-led Arkansas legislature says “governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification.”
Supporters say a business should not be forced to, for example, cater a same-sex wedding if doing so would violate the religious beliefs of the owner.
Two of the most powerful companies in the United States, retailer Wal-Mart Stores, which has its home office in Arkansas, and technology giant Apple have criticized the measure.
“We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief of respect for the individual and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said in a statement.
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.”
The measure passed the Arkansas House in February by a comfortable margin and now goes back to it for consideration of amendments in the Senate version. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, has said he would sign the measure into law.
A U.S. judge last year struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, but the decision has been put on hold pending appeals.