Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Wednesday that he would not sign a controversial measure protecting religious freedom, urging lawmakers to recall the bill or alter it to more closely resemble federal law.

The announcement marked an about-face for Hutchinson, a Republican who had said he would sign the measure, known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Arkansas bill was approved overwhelmingly by state legislators despite protests from gay activists and major corporations to a similar measure in Indiana.

Proponents of the laws say they are necessary to protect the rights of religious people. The Arkansas law says in its text that it exists to safeguard a person’s right not to do something that conflicts with his or her religious beliefs.

“This legislation doesn’t allow anybody to discriminate against anybody, not here,” Arkansas state Rep. Bob Ballinger, a Republican who sponsored the measure, said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “The bill does just the opposite. It focuses on the civil rights of people believing what they want to believe, and not letting the government interfere with that.”

But the Indiana law and the Arkansas bill have drawn fire because – unlike a federal religious freedom law signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton – these new bills say companies have the same religious rights as individuals.

That change, critics argue, could be used by businesses to justify discrimination against gay couples, particularly as they seek to marry.

“The thought that we would have state legislatures in the 21st century in the United States of America passing laws that would use religion to try to justify discriminating against people because of who they love is unthinkable,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday during his daily briefing.

Earnest called the Indiana bill “a terrible idea,” which he said is why that law and the Arkansas version prompted outcries and forced elected officials to seek reworked legislation.

While Hutchinson called the bill straightforward, he said the issue “has become divisive because our nation remains split over how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions.”

This “generational” fissure reached his own household, Hutchinson said, describing how his son, Seth, a union organizer in Texas, signed a petition asking him to veto the bill.

High-profile figures in the state also spoke out against the measure. Doug McMillon, chief executive at Wal-Mart, the state’s largest employer, called on Hutchinson to veto it, saying in a statement that it “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

Hutchinson’s decision Wednesday “is a sign of progress,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates gay rights.

“But the proof will be in the pudding,” Griffin said in a statement. “We must now wait to see what actions and language Governor Hutchinson and the Arkansas Legislature put forward in the coming days and weeks.”

Griffin added: “It is imperative that any legislation that advances must have language that explicitly ensures that it will not undermine the fundamental rights of LGBT people and all other Arkansans.”


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