Religious Freedom Firestorm: Arkansas House Approves Bill Similar to Indiana's

On the heels of Indiana's controversial religious freedom law, Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday gave final approval to a similar measure — and the governor says he'll sign it.

The Arkansas House voted 67-21 to pass the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which follows the state senate's approval of the bill Friday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson's office did not immediately respond to the bill's passing, but has previously said he would sign it into law when it reaches his desk. His spokesman said the governor would make a statement Wednesday.

Protesters gathered outside the governor's mansion in Little Rock on Tuesday morning in anticipation of the House vote.

Arkansas-based mega-retailer Walmart also came out against the bill, and urged the governor to veto it.

"Today's passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold," Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

The Indiana law, enacted last week, and the proposed Arkansas law were presented as ways to keep government from infringing on religion. But opponents say they could be used as cover for discrimination, allowing businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers.

Tim Cook, the openly gay CEO of Apple, led widespread corporate opposition to the law in Indiana, and the NCAA, which is staging the Final Four in Indianapolis this week, hinted that it would think twice about bringing future events there.

The governors of New York, Connecticut and Washington suspended some government travel from their states to Indiana.

"They knew what they were doing. They were going to make it legal to refuse to serve gay men and women," Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy told MSNBC on Tuesday. "Somebody has to call them on it."

The CEO of Acxiom, a data services company with headquarters in Little Rock, wrote in an open letter to Gov. Hutchinson that the bill "inflicts pain on some of our citizens and disgrace upon us all."

And protesters at the Capitol on Monday held signs saying "Discrimination is not a Christian Value" and "Discrimination is a Disease."

Hutchinson, a Republican, told NBC affiliate KARK that the bill in his state is meant to strike a balance between religious freedom and equal protection of the law. "This bill tries to do that, and it's not that complicated," he said.

Sexual orientation is not covered by anti-discrimination laws in either state.

After the Arkansas bill passed, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge on Tuesday approved language of a ballot proposal that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights act, clearing the way for supporters to start gathering signatures.

Nineteen other states and the federal government have religious freedom laws. The federal law was signed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton.

But legal experts have said that the Indiana and Arkansas laws could open a wider berth for discrimination because they allow businesses to use the religious claim to fight lawsuits brought by people — would-be customers, for example — and not just government action.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, said on Monday that he would not sign a religious freedom bill working through the Legislature.

"What is the problem they're trying to solve?" he asked during a radio interview, according to The News & Observer newspaper of Raleigh. "I haven't seen it at this point in time."

A religious freedom bill has stalled in Georgia.