Legislation aimed at religious freedom heads to Arkansas Senate
The conservative Alliance Defending Freedom helped draft House Bill 1615 and other bills this session
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough (center), D-Little Rock, speaks against House Bill 1615 on the House floor April 3, 2023. Rep. Robin Lundstrum (right), R-Elm Springs, is the bill’s sponsor. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
A proposed law similar to a ballot measure rejected by Arkansas voters last year passed the House of Representatives along party lines Monday.
House Bill 1615 would amend Act 975 of 2015, known as the Conscience Protection Act or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Critics of the legislation at the time said it would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ Arkansans.
Act 975 states that a governmental body “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the alleged burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest.”
A proposed amendment to the state constitution, Issue 3, had the same purpose. Lawmakers referred the amendment to voters in 2021 as one of the three constitutional amendments the Legislature is allowed to send to the general election ballot per session.
Issue 3 failed by a slim margin, with 50.4% “no” votes and 49.6% “yes” votes in November 2022.
The House Judiciary Committee sent House Bill 1615 to the full House with a split voice vote Thursday.
Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, said to the committee and the House that she filed the bill to add clarity to existing law and to limit the reach of government.
“This bill curls in government [and] pulls it back and lets individuals practice their religious freedoms,” Lundstrum said Monday.
House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said the bill is not necessary because religious freedom is already protected in state and federal law.
“There is nothing out there that says anybody is being harmed right now,” McCullough said. “Not one Arkansan is being forced to do something that violates their religion.”
Lundstrum said she believed the Legislature should not “wait until someone’s religious freedoms are taken before we stand up.”
The bill states that it should be interpreted “in favor of a broad protection of free exercise of religious beliefs, to the maximum extent permitted” by both the state and U.S. constitutions.
Additionally, the bill states that someone can make a claim of a burden on their religious freedom in a future instance, not just one that has already happened, “regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.”
McCullough mentioned this on the House floor and called it “a massive rewrite of our civil rights code.”
Rep. Hope Duke, R-Gravette, joined McCullough and 15 other House Democrats in voting against the bill. Two Democrats and three Republicans did not vote. The remaining 78 Republicans voted to send the bill to the Senate.
The original version of House Bill 1615, filed March 13, would have prohibited “discriminatory action” from the government based on “a belief about biological sex or marriage,” including the definition of gender as “an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at the time of birth.”
The same definition appears in Senate Bill 270, a bill restricting transgender adults’ public bathroom use that was amended Tuesday after hours of public dissent.
House Bill 1615 was amended Wednesday to remove this definition. Another deleted clause stated that the government “shall not take any discriminatory action against a religious organization that advertises, provides, or facilitates adoption or foster care” based on actions the organization has taken due to “a sincerely held religious belief.”
The bill would still shield “a belief about biological sex or marriage” from governmental burdens.
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Committee discussion and other bills
Several other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee agreed with McCullough at Thursday’s meeting that House Bill 1615 is not necessary.
Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, asked Lundstrum why the Legislature was considering a bill that would go “against the will of the people of the state” after Issue 3 failed.
Lundstrum said she believed Issue 3 was “very confusing” and her bill did not oppose the will of the people. She also said the current Religious Freedom Restoration Act “lacks robust definitions” that would clarify what religious freedom means.
Greg Chaplin of the Alliance Defending Freedom helped Lundstrum present House Bill 1615 to the committee. The ADF is a conservative, faith-based advocacy group that has opposed LGBTQ rights efforts and has been involved with other bills this legislative session.
Matt Sharp, another ADF representative, helped Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, present House Bill 1468 to the House Education Committee in March. The bill would require public school teachers and professors to use the pronouns and names students were assigned at birth unless parents specifically allow them to do otherwise. Long has said the bill is meant to protect educators from negative consequences if they choose not to use students’ preferred names and pronouns due to their religious beliefs.
House Bill 1468 passed the full House and the Senate Education Committee. It has yet to be heard by the full Senate.
Long is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1615, and Lundstrum is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1468. Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, is a co-sponsor of both bills, and she said the ADF helped amend Senate Bill 43, which she also co-sponsored when it was moving through the Legislature in January and February.
Senate Bill 43 is now Act 131 of 2023. It initially would have banned drag shows from being held within a certain distance of schools, parks and other places children frequent.
The bill was heavily amended so it would hold up in court, Bentley said in February. Act 131 does not mention the word “drag.”
Democratic legislators and LGBTQ rights activists have said bills such as Senate Bill 43, Senate Bill 270 and House Bill 1468 are attacks on the basic rights of transgender Arkansans.
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