REP. BOB BALLINGER: He's here to protect your religious freedom.
HB1228, the so-called conscience protection bill by Rep. Bob Ballinger (R-Hindsville) that would allow Arkansans to discriminate against LGBT people based on their personal interpretation of religion, has passed the state Senate by a vote of 24-7. It now heads to the House.
No one spoke in favor of HB1228 after it was introduced by Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), though several senators spoke out passionately against it.
Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock) said that while other states have passed similar Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, "one of the issues with this bill is that it opens a huge gray area as a defense to the laws we pass and the ordinances that cities and counties pass."
Johnson noted a case in Texas in which a religion-based halfway house sued over a municipal prohibition on where halfway houses could be located. The Texas Supreme Court, Johnson said, later ruled that under the state's RFRA, the halfway house could, in fact, locate anywhere they pleased. In another case Johnson noted, a Buddhist temple in Connecticut sued a city, saying that parking and noise restrictions were hindering their religious freedom. The temple later won in court under that state's RFRA, Johnson said. The ability to skirt the law by invoking religion, Johnson said, will "encourage people to hijack religion."
"It's a double standard. It's a huge gray area," Johnson said. "It will employ attorneys for the next decade while the courts try to put limitations sand try to figure out what this new law in Arkansas means."
Sen. Joyce Elliott read from a letter from a gay constituent, who wrote, in part, that the bill was extremely unconstitutional, and "mutes those who like myself are a religious or denominational minority."
"I'm always wondering when we're passing laws: What are we advancing?" Elliott asked her colleagues. "What problem are we solving? Are we really doing this in the interest of most people in our state? Have we created a problem so we can create a solution?"
Elliott asked her fellow senators to consider a scenario in which her 16 year old gay nephew with her 17-year-old straight niece walked into a business, with one of them being served while the other was discriminated against. "How would you explain that to those two young people standing in front of you?" Elliott said. "What would you say to them?"
Sen. Linda Chesterfield asked Senators to remember Christ's commandment to love one another.
"Having lived in this state a long time," Chesterfield said, "I know what religious freedom means. And I also know that it has not always been used in the best way. Having grown up in the South all of my life, I know that religious freedom has meant that slavery was okay. It has meant that Jim Crow was okay. It has meant that it was okay to keep people from achieving that which they deserved. It's impossible for me, having suffered from that religious freedom in a negative way, to fail to say that we are better than this."
You can listen to the audio of today's debate and vote below: