LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says he does not plan to sign the religious freedom bill that sits on his desk right now, instead asking state lawmakers to make changes so the bill mirrors federal law.
The first-term Republican governor said he wants his state “to be known as a state that does not discriminate but understands tolerance.”
His decision comes in the wake of an uproar in Indiana, where Gov. Mike Pence has faced pressure from businesses, sports associations like the NCAA and popular culture figures to backtrack on a similar religious freedom law he signed last week. In Arkansas, it’s been Walmart applying the most pressure.
Hutchinson asked lawmakers to recall the law that the Arkansas House had given final approval on Tuesday — or to send him follow-up legislation that makes the changes he requested.
Meanwhile, Hutchinson said, he’s considering signing an executive order that bars discrimination among the state’s workforce.
“The issue has become divisive because our nation remains split on how to balance the diversity of our culture with the traditions and firmly held religious convictions,” Hutchinson said. “It has divided families, and there is clearly a generational gap on this issue.”
Case in point, Hutchinson said: His son Seth signed a petition asking him to veto the bill — and also gave his father permission to tell reporters he’d done so.
Hutchinson said he supports Arkansas adding a religious freedom law to its books — but he wants it to directly mirror the federal version that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993.
“We wanted to have it crafted similar to what is at the federal level,” Hutchinson said. “To do that, though, changes need to be made. The bill that is on my desk at the present time does not precisely mirror the federal law.”
Hutchinson is the latest Republican governor to back away from religious freedom measures in the wake of Indiana’s controversy. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory said earlier this week that such a law “makes no sense.”
That leaves Pence alone as the public face of the issue — and it complicates the issue for 2016 Republican candidates, too, who’d backed Pence but now will face questions about Hutchinson’s position.
Likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton seized on the issue, urging Hutchinson to veto the bill.
The perils Arkansas faces were made clear Tuesday morning when Pence insisted he’d “fix” Indiana’s law to make sure it doesn’t allow businesses like Christian florists or bakers to turn away gay and lesbian customers — which the bill’s conservative supporters had said was one of their chief goals.
“Was I expecting this kind of backlash? Heavens no,” Pence said.
Following Indiana, Arkansas has become the second of what could be a spate of states to add religious freedom laws to their books this year. There are 14 other states considering similar proposals this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Advocates of the measures insist they’re simply mimicking what the federal government did under Clinton, and what 19 other states had already done.
But the context has changed. The Supreme Court is poised to issue a ruling that could legalize same-sex marriage across the United States — and social conservatives have come to view religious freedom laws as the next frontier in the culture clash over gay rights.
And Indiana’s fight exposed another problem: Gays and lesbians lack the shield that a state anti-discrimination law that includes protections based on sexual orientation would offer — and Pence has said he’s not interested in changing that.
Making social conservatives’ case harder is the intense opposition from business communities. In Arkansas, home-state giant Walmart was a leading critic of the religious freedom bill.
The other states where religious freedom bills have been introduced are Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Those efforts have stalled, though, in North Carolina and Georgia.
A Georgia bill hit a roadblock when a House member successfully amended anti-discrimination language into it.
CNN’s Victor Blackwell contributed to this report.