US & Canada

Arkansas and Indiana pass changes to religious laws

Asa Hutchinson Image copyright AP
Image caption Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a reworked bill

Arkansas and Indiana have passed laws to quell the outcry over new "religious freedom" legislation that critics say encourages anti-gay discrimination.

Republican Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a revised version of his religious objections bill that he hopes addresses these concerns.

The amendments mean his state's law more closely mirrors what Bill Clinton signed into federal law in 1993.

Indiana also approved law changes which were signed off by its governor.

The Indiana amendment prohibits businesses from using the law as a legal defence if they refuse to provide services to gays and lesbians, or other groups.

The change does not apply to churches, religious schools, or non-profit religious organisations.

It also prohibits discrimination based on race, colour, ancestry, religion, age, disability, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and military service.

The law's critics...

Image copyright AP
Image caption Miley Cyrus called Indiana's law "unevolved & unjust"

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Neither the Indiana nor Arkansas law - so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Acts - had specifically mentioned gays and lesbians.

But opponents of the original laws said the language contained could offer a legal defence to businesses with religious objections to same-sex marriage - for example, caterers, florists or photographers that refused to offer services to same-sex couples.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Demonstrators on the steps of the Arkansas state capitol

The federal law of 1993 was designed to protect infringements by the government on individuals, particularly in relation to Native Americans who were being fired for smoking peyote, which was encouraged by the Native American Church.

It does not allow businesses to use the law as a way to discriminate.

"This mirrors the federal law," Mr Hutchinson said at the signing ceremony, broadcast on cable television. "That was the objective. We did that."

The spotlight of criticism came to Indiana at an unwelcome time. The state is preparing to play host to the nation's college basketball championships in coming days.

The controversy has gripped the US political debate as the number of states that allow same-sex marriage has steadily increased. The US Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer in a case that could make gay marriage legal across the United States.

At the Indiana State House: Ashley Semler, BBC News

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Media captionThe BBC asked a gay rights activist if the change was enough

Indiana lawmakers and business leaders, some of whom had originally spoken out against the law, stressed their state's history of hospitality and inclusiveness.

House Speaker Brian Bosma offered a personal apology to Greg Louganis, the gold-medal winning diver, who had told him he felt hurt by the law.

The House chamber was packed with lawmakers, members of the news media and local business leaders.

One gay rights activist told us after the news conference ended that the state still needs to do more to protect the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender people.

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