On Friday March 27th, while physical and digital cavalries amassed in opposition to Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s Thursday signing of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Arkansas state Senate voted 24-7 in favor of its state’s own version of the bill. HB 1228, a bill declaring that “a state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion,” passed its final vote in the House on Tuesday, March 31st. Governor Asa Hutchinson vows to sign the bill as amended despite witnessing the near-immediate dithering of Pence and legislators on the content of the Indiana law due to the massive backlash. The pitchforks are being quickly re-sharpened as this battle moves southward. Despite his proclaimed steadfastness, mounting pressure from both within Arkansas and worldwide could make Hutchinson’s signing of the bill more akin to Custer than Christ.
With hundreds of protesters gathered at the Arkansas Capitol, the pressure has already begun even before the bill reaches the Governor’s desk. Hutchinson was elected in 2014, campaigning as a “jobs governor.” If Indiana offers a clue, however, he may end up being the captain of one of the largest job-flights in Arkansas history. Bentonville-based Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, has spoken out strongly against the measure. “We feel this legislation is counter to this core basic belief and sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state,” said a spokesperson for the company after the Senate passage. Additionally, Tim Cook of Apple, the world’s most valuable corporation, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post strongly voicing his opposition while tweeting that Apple is open for everyone, asking Hutchinson to veto the bill. Groups such as Human Rights Campaign, The Arkansas Municipal League, as well as civil rights leader, Julian Bond, have also appealed for Hutchinson to reconsider his vow.
So far, Hutchinson and the bill’s legislative supporters appear unmoved. Bill author, Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) has stated, almost defiantly, “There’s not really any place to make any changes now. If there are questions, in two years we can fix it.” The cavalier attitude may be a successful posture to a small electorate in Northwest Arkansas, but Hutchinson will face pressure from many of the globe’s biggest power-brokers as well as a statewide constituency that could face tangible economic consequences. Unlike Pence, who appears to have taken a remedial crash-course in damage control, Hutchinson still has a chance to save face for his state before HB 1228 is law, possibly becoming a hero in the long-run by vetoing the bill. It may be too late for that politically, however, given that the tightly-held Republican legislature would likely make the rest of his term quite uncomfortable. The governor has probably cornered himself, and will have to make a decision in order to risk his political career in order to preserve his historical legacy.
BuzzFeed – Dominic Holden
Reuters – John Herskovitz
Washington TImes – Andrew DeMillo