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The next Indiana: Arkansas House passes its own heavily-criticized ‘religious freedom’ act

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Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) (YouTube)

The Arkansas House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a religious freedom bill similar to one recently approved in Indiana, over protests from critics who say it could open the door to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The measure, which had strong support from the Republican members who dominate the statehouse, now goes to Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, who has said he would sign it.

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Both laws aim to keep the state government from forcing business owners to act against their religious beliefs, but critics say they could be used to justify refusing service to gay and lesbian people.

Final approval came when the Arkansas House overwhelmingly concurred with three amendments added by the Senate, which approved the bill last week.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola has asked Hutchinson to veto the bill, saying in a letter on Tuesday the legislation is unnecessary and could hurt the state’s economy.

“Any piece of legislation that is so divisive cannot possibly be good for the state of Arkansas and its people. With these kind of ‘wedge issues,’ no one is a winner on either side,” he said.

Supporters said the law does not allow for discrimination and is needed to protect religious freedoms.

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The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce said it is “bad for business and bad for Arkansas.” Democrats said it will allow for bigotry.

“Our history will tell us that when religion is used as a sword it is often used to attack people of color and women,” said Representative Eddie Armstrong, an African-American and Democratic floor leader.

The outcry over the Indiana law was so fierce that the state’s governor, Republican Mike Pence, on Tuesday said he would “correct” the legislation to make it clear businesses cannot use it to discriminate against same-sex couples.

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The Arkansas legislature had already enacted a bill prohibiting local governments from adopting anti-discrimination codes that protected gays and lesbians.

(Reporting by Steve Barnes; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Eric Beech)

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