INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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 scramble to revise that state’s own religious objections legislation amid cries that it could permit discrimination.
The Indiana amendment prohibits service providers from using the law as a legal defense 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 nonprofit 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.
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.”
In Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called on the Legislature to change the measure he had once said he would sign into law. But the time to make revisions was short. The bill becomes law five days after the governor receives it unless he vetoes the proposal. And even if he does issue a veto, lawmakers can override it with a simple majority.
A House committee endorsed a bill aimed at addressing his concerns, setting up a final vote for Thursday afternoon.
The bill would prohibit state and local government from infringing upon someone’s religious beliefs without a compelling reason. Hutchinson asked lawmakers to recall the bill, amend it or pass a follow-up measure that would make the proposal more closely mirror a federal religious-freedom law.
The lawmaker behind the original proposal said he backed the changes.
“We’re going to allow a person to believe what they want to believe without the state coming in and burdening that unless they’ve got a good reason to do so,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger told the House Judiciary Committee.
Hutchinson was the second governor in as many days to give ground to opponents of the law. Since signing Indiana’s law last week, Pence and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have been subjected to sharp criticism from around the country. It led Pence to seek changes to address concerns that the law would allow businesses to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
Hutchinson has faced pressure from the state’s largest employers, including retail giant Wal-Mart. Businesses called the bill discriminatory and said it would hurt Arkansas’ image. Hutchinson noted that his own son, Seth, had signed a petition urging him to veto the bill.
Conservative groups said they would still prefer that Hutchinson sign the original bill, but they grudgingly backed the compromise measure.
“The bill that’s on the governor’s desk is the Rolls Royce of religious freedom bills. It is a very good bill,” said Jerry Cox, head of the Arkansas Family Council. “The bill that just passed … is a Cadillac.”
The revised Arkansas measure only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals, and supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals. Opponents said they believed the measure still needs explicit anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana’s proposal.
The original bill “gave us a black eye. This bill ices it,” said Rita Sklar, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas. “We still need some Tylenol.”
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 defense to businesses and other institutions that refuse to serve gays, such as caterers, florists or photographers with religious objections to same-sex marriage.
Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, with some differences. Indiana and 19 other states have similar laws on the books.
Associated Press writer Allen Reed in Little Rock, Arkansas, contributed to this report.
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