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Arkansas passes its own religious freedom bill despite uproar in Indiana

The Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill that critics charge could allow discrimination against gays and lesbians in the name of religious beliefs. The passage came hours after Indiana’s governor promised a legislative fix for that state’s version of the bill, which has led to a national uproar and some boycotts.

Arkansas' Religious Freedom Restoration Act now heads to the desk of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a moderate Republican, who has said he will sign it into law.

Opponents, including retail giant Wal-Mart, called on him to veto the bill. 

If the governor signs the legislation, Arkansas would become the 21st state to enact a version of a religious freedom act, designed to prevent the state from taking actions that infringe on individual’s religious beliefs. Arkansas would be the second state this year to approve such a law.

Supporters argue the law protects religious freedom and is not designed to discriminate against any group. But opponents contend the class of laws allow businesses to deny service to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

As the Arkansas bill worked it way through the Legislature, it sparked demonstrations and complaints from businesses owners who said it could hurt the economy. Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in Arkansas, and technology companies like Apple opposed the measure. 

On Tuesday, Wal-Mart called on the governor to veto the bill. In a statement, Chief Executive Doug McMillon said the legislation "threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold. For these reasons, we are asking Governor Hutchinson to veto this legislation.”

Mark Stodola, the Democratic mayor of Little Rock, the state's biggest city, announced this week he was opposing the law.

“Any piece of legislation that is so divisive cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people. With these kind of 'wedge issues,' no one is a winner on either side,” Stodola wrote.

Republicans control both chambers of the state Legislature.

Final passage came hours after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence urged lawmakers in his state to pass legislation to fix that state’s law, which has sparked some economic boycotts and complaints from local and national business groups.

Pence said that he did not know what form the fix would take but that he expected it to reach his desk this week.

Arkansas lawmakers said they weren't seeking to modify their version.

“There's not really any place to make any changes now,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger of Hindsville told the Associated Press and other reporters. “If there are questions in two years, we can fix it.”

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

8:48 p.m.: Updated with Wal-Mart CEO calling on Arkansas governor to veto the bill.

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