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Indiana to Amend Religious Freedom Law Over Discrimination Fears

  • Ken Bredemeier

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson answers reporters' questions as Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, background, listens at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson answers reporters' questions as Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, background, listens at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., Wednesday, April 1, 2015.

Lawmakers in the U.S. state of Indiana moved Thursday to change a newly enacted religious freedom law to make sure that businesses cannot use it to discriminate against gay and lesbian customers.

Indiana Republicans who control the state legislature said they are amending the measure to make certain that no one will "be able to discriminate against anyone at any time."

The state and its conservative Republican governor, Mike Pence, were widely condemned by gay rights groups and corporate executives in the state and elsewhere after approving the law.

Critics said it would allow businesses to use their religious beliefs against homosexuality to deny selling services to gays, such as catering a wedding for same-sex couples. Governors in at least three other states blocked official travel to Indiana in protest of the law.

With the national outcry, Pence and state lawmakers acted quickly to change it, although the state has stopped short of enacting a law that protects gays as a group of people from all forms of discrimination. The changes say that Indiana businesses cannot discriminate on the basis of "sexual orientation" or "gender identity."

Groups that advocated for passage of the original law said the changes will destroy it, and would force Christian merchants to provide services that violate their beliefs.

The furor over use of religious freedom laws to discriminate against gays also erupted in Arkansas, where Governor Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday he had changed his mind about signing its version of the law and asked legislators to amend it.

Hutchinson announced his intentions a day after the Arkansas legislature approved the measure. The Republican governor said he wanted state lawmakers to either recall the measure or revise it so that it would more closely mirror a federal religious freedom law.

Hutchinson reversed course after critics said the bill would legally protect businesses that refuse to serve gays and lesbians on the grounds that it would violate the businesses' religious beliefs. The state's largest corporation, retail giant Walmart, as well as the Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas' capital, Little Rock, also urged Hutchinson to change his mind.

The governor even credited a petition signed by his son, Seth, as influencing his change of heart.

"This is a bill that in ordinary times would not be controversial," said Hutchinson. "But these are not ordinary times."

Twenty other U.S. states have religious freedom measures, similar to a federal law signed in 1993 by then-president Bill Clinton, a former Arkansas governor. The federal law, which was initially meant to protect religious minorities, grew out of the desire to safeguard a native American ritual involving an outlawed psychedelic substance, the peyote plant.

The controversy over the use of religious freedom laws erupted as the United States has moved toward broader acceptance of same-sex marriages, which are now legal in 37 of the 50 states. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June whether gay marriage should be legal nationwide.

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