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Indiana, Arkansas Struggle With Changes To 'Religious Freedom' Laws

A sign reading "This business serves everyone" was placed in the window of Bernadette's Barbershop in downtown Lafayette, Ind., in response to the passage of the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Updated at 12:35 p.m. ET

Lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas are wrestling with new language for "religious freedom" measures that have sparked controversy for what critics say amounts to an open invitation for businesses to deny service to gays and lesbians.

Indiana's legislation, signed into law last week by Gov. Mike Pence, set off a massive online protest and prompted several large companies, such as Angie's List, to threaten to curtail their business in the Hoosier state. Arkansas' governor asked lawmakers on Wednesday to change that state's law before he would consider signing it.

Bowing to pressure, Pence earlier this week asked the Republican-dominated state Legislature to "fix" the law to allay concerns about discrimination.

Supporters say the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is meant to protect people from undue government intrusion on their religious beliefs and insist that it is not meant to condone discrimination.

Pastor Tim Overton of Halteman Village Baptist Church in Muncie, Ind., tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that he believes a line must be drawn at forcing people with religious convictions to act against their beliefs.

"To ask a religious person who happens to own a business to do something that is against their conscience, I just don't think that squares with the American tradition of freedom of religion," Overton says.

(For a primer on religious freedom acts — what they do and don't mean, NPR's Domenico Montanaro has this post from Wednesday)

Lawmakers meeting in Indianapolis on Thursday are debating a proposed amendment to the law to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. If approved, it would be the first time either category had received such recognition in the state.

Brandon Smith of member station WFYI in Indianapolis writes that the compromise also "adds language to clarify that the law does not 'authorize a provider to refuse to offer or provide services, employment and housing to any member of the general public.'"

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said at a news conference at the Statehouse that the changes will make it clear that no one will be able to "discriminate against anyone at any time."

The Indianapolis Star quotes former Indianapolis mayor, Democrat Bart Peterson, who is now an executive of Indiana-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co., as saying "The healing has to begin right now."

Meanwhile in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he wants the Legislature to either recall the bill passed Tuesday or to pass a follow-up measure making it hew closely to a 1993 federal religious freedom law. Besides Indiana, 19 other states have similar laws, but in many, sexual orientation is already a protected class.

The Associated Press notes: "Conservatives who had been pushing for the measure are questioning the need for any changes. The lawmakers who introduced the legislation say they're open to discussions, but aren't saying they would support any changes."

Without changes, the Arkansas bill would become law in five days without Hutchinson's signature.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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