Indiana lawmakers unveil changes to religious objections law

Indiana's legislators are debating proposed changes to the state's new religious objections law, which has faced criticism it could allow discrimination against lesbians and gays.

Arkansas governor signs revised religious freedom act into law

Demonstrators rallied Saturday at the Indiana state capital against a controversial religious freedom law saying it would promote discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation. On Thursday, state legislators announced changes to the law so it could not be used as a basis to discriminate. (Nate Chute/Reuters)

Indiana lawmakers announced proposed changes Thursday to the state's new religious objections law aimed at quelling widespread criticism from businesses and other groups that have called the proposal anti-gay.

The revisions, which still require approval from the full legislature and Republican Gov. Mike Pence, come as lawmakers in Arkansas approved a revised religion bill, changing sections in the previous measure that critics said targeted gays.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the revised version of the bill moments after it was given final approval by the state House of Representatives. The law prohibits state and local government from infringing on someone's religious beliefs without a compelling interest.

The move comes a day after Hutchinson asked lawmakers to change the measure to make it more closely mirror a 1993 federal law. The original bill drew widespread criticism from businesses and others who called it anti-gay.

Hutchinson had also received a request from world's biggest retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is based in the state, to veto the previous measure.

The Indiana amendment prohibits service providers from using the law as a legal defence for refusing to provide services, goods, facilities or accommodations. It also bars discrimination based on race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or U.S. military service.

The measure exempts churches and affiliated schools, along with non-profit religious organizations.

House Speaker Brian Bosma said the agreement sends a "very strong statement" that the state will not tolerate discrimination.

The law "cannot be used to discriminate against anyone," he said.

Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long said they have the votes needed to pass the amendment and send it to Pence. A spokeswoman for the governor said he would not comment until the revised bill arrives on his desk.

Business leaders, many of whom had opposed the law or pledged to cancel travel to the state because of it, called the amendment a good first step. Indiana still does not include the LGBT community as a protected class in its civil-rights law, but Bosma said lawmakers met with representatives of the gay community and said they believed the new language addressed many of their concerns.

Need for image repair

Former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, now a senior vice president at drugmaker Eli Lilly, praised the agreement but noted that work needs to be done to repair the damage done to the state's image.

"The healing needs to begin right now," he said.

Democratic leaders said the proposed amendment does not go far enough and repeated their calls to repeal the law.

"I want to hear somebody say we made a grave mistake, and we caused the state tremendous embarrassment that will take months, if not years, to repair," House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said. "I want to hear one of the proponents 'fess up, because the healing cannot begin until that happens. The solution is simple. Repeal this law."

As originally passed, neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law specifically mentioned gays and lesbians. But opponents have voiced concern that the language contained in them could offer a legal defence to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Supporters insist the law will only give religious objectors a chance to bring their case before a judge.

With files from Reuters