LITTLE ROCK — A controversial bill aimed at “conscience protection” was derailed Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee when it fell short of the number of votes needed to advance to the Senate for consideration.
The panel also rejected a bill that, according to its sponsor, would ensure that U.S. citizens are subject to U.S. law in Arkansas courts.
House Bill 1228, the “Conscience Protection Act,” by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, would prohibit the state from interceding in matters of conscience due to a person’s religious beliefs unless the state has a substantial interest in doing so, and does so by the least restrictive means possible.
Much of the controversy has centered around criticism that the bill would allow discrimination against people based upon sexual orientation or gender identity, with local governments and even the state powerless to pass legislation to prevent it unless a compelling interest in doing so could be shown to trump person’s religious freedoms.
Little Rock attorney Paul Byrd, speaking in support of the bill, said freedom of religion has always been a fundamental right in the U.S. and that the right to practice religion has almost always been upheld by the courts. But Byrd said a U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a corporation’s decision to fire two Native American employees who used peyote in religious ceremonies and failed a drug screening.
Byrd named several other cases in which he said the U.S. Supreme Court rejected arguments of religious freedom, which he said has led states to begin passing legislation to protect those freedoms at the state level.
“I just wish they had let the guy have his peyote,” said Byrd. “We wouldn’t be sitting here now.”
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen, speaking in opposition to the bill, likened the possible impact on gays to the treatment he experienced growing up under the “Jim Crow” laws of an earlier time.
“I know from personal experience that Jim Crow was relied upon on religious grounds. I can quote you chapter and verse,” he said.
Griffen, who also is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock and a board member of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance, said the bill could open the door to various abuses based on religion.
“I am a United States Army veteran,” he said. “This bill could allow a devout Quaker who is a pacifist to find that serving me indirectly burdens their exercise of religion. Whether I buy a hamburger, or to go to a movie, want to live in a neighborhood, or a job.”
The bill received four votes in favor of advancement and three against. It needed five to clear the committee.
Ballinger said later the criticisms of the bill were unjustified.
“Some of it seemed kind of, frankly, degrading,” he said. “Some people are completely missing the mark, either analyzing the bill incorrectly or just saying whatever they want to make it seem like something it’s not.”
Ballinger said some are trying to link HB 1228 with Senate Bill 202, now Act 137 of 2015, which prohibits cities and counties from issuing ordinances to prohibit discrimination toward anyone who is not already protected under federal or state law.
“I think a lot of people got stirred up on 202 and so now they’re using this bill,” he said. “The reality is it should be uncontroversial, that people should have the right to believe what they believe and if the government is going to burden it they ought to have a good reason.”
Ballinger said he would continue working to get the bill passed.
The committee also rejected Senate Bill 229 by Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro. Cooper said the bill is intended to protect citizens of the state from being subjected to foreign laws, such as Sharia Law, in Arkansas courts.
The bill does not specifically mention Sharia Law.
“This issue could come up in other realms besides Sharia, that’s just an example,” Cooper said. “This legislation was passed in Oklahoma and in that case it did mention Sharia. It was struck down as discriminatory. In this bill it is generic as ‘foreign law’ and does not carve out any group. It just sets as our public policy the protection of our citizens for due process.”
A motion to endorse the bill received only three votes.
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