INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Gov. Mike Pence asked lawmakers Tuesday to send him a clarification of the state's new religious-freedom law later this week, while Arkansas legislators passed a similar measure, despite criticism that it is a thinly disguised attempt to permit discrimination against gays.
The Arkansas proposal now goes to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will sign it.
Pence defended the Indiana law as a vehicle to protect religious liberty but said he has been meeting with lawmakers "around the clock" to address concerns that it would allow businesses to deny services to gay customers.
The governor said he does not believe "for a minute" that lawmakers intended "to create a license to discriminate."
"It certainly wasn't my intent," said Pence, who signed the law last week.
But, he said, he "can appreciate that that's become the perception, not just here in Indiana but all across the country. We need to confront that."
The Indiana law prohibits any laws that "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs. The definition of "person" includes religious institutions, businesses and associations.
Although the legal language does not specifically mention gays and lesbians, critics say the law is designed to shield businesses and individuals who do not want to serve gays and lesbians, such as florists or caterers who might be hired for a same-sex wedding.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Indiana officials appeared to be in "damage-control mode" following the uproar over the law.
Earnest also took issue with Pence's claim that Indiana's law was rooted in a 1993 federal law. He said the Indiana measure marked a "significant expansion" over that law because it applies to private transactions beyond those involving the federal government.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act arose from a case related to the use of peyote in a Native American ritual. But in 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal law did not apply to the states. So states began enacting their own laws. Twenty now have them on the books.
Businesses and organizations including Apple and the NCAA have voiced concern over Indiana's law, and some states have barred government-funded travel to the state.
Democratic legislative leaders said a clarification would not be enough.
"To say anything less than a repeal is going to fix it is incorrect," House Minority Leader Scott Pelath said.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem David Long said lawmakers were negotiating a clarification proposal that he hoped would be ready for public release on Wednesday, followed by a vote Thursday before sending the package to the governor.
"We have a sense that we need to move quickly out here and be pretty nimble," Long said. "But right now, we don't have consensus on the language."
Also Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star urged state lawmakers in a front-page editorial to respond to widespread criticism of the law by protecting the rights of gays and lesbians.
The Star's editorial, headlined "FIX THIS NOW," covered the newspaper's entire front page. It called for lawmakers to enact a law that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
The newspaper says the uproar sparked by the law has "done enormous harm" to the state and potentially to its economic future.
In Little Rock, hundreds of people filled the Arkansas Capitol for a second day to protest the measure, holding signs that read "Hate is Not Holy" and "We are Open for Business for All Arkansans."
If enacted, the Arkansas proposal would prohibit state and local governments from infringing on a person's religious beliefs without a "compelling" reason. The proposal was given final approval in a series of votes after the Republican-led House rejected efforts to send the bill back to committee to change it.
"The reality is what we're doing here is really not that remarkable," Republican Bob Ballinger, the lawmaker behind Arkansas' measure, told reporters. "I do understand it's kind of taken on a life of its own."
Similar proposals have been introduced this year in more than a dozen states.
Democrats said they had hoped to amend the proposal to make it clear the measure could not be used to deny services to someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
"In Indiana, they can say we were not prepared for the backlash," said Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker, who opposed the bill. "We don't really have that luxury in Arkansas because we've had a real-time preview of what we're up against because of what has happened in Indiana over the last week."
Arkansas-based retail giant Wal-Mart, which has previously said the bill sends the wrong message about its home state, called on Hutchinson to veto the bill.
"Today's passage of HB1228 threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold," Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said in a statement Tuesday.
In a letter also released Tuesday, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola urged Hutchinson to veto the proposal, which he said would hurt the state's economic-development efforts by sending "the message that some members of our community will have fewer protections than others. Our city and our state cannot be limited to only certain segments of society."
The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, calling it bad for business.
Sexual orientation and gender identity are not included in Arkansas' anti-discrimination protections. Last month, Hutchinson allowed a measure to go into law that prevented local governments from including such protections in their anti-discrimination ordinances.
DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.
Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .