Arkansas and Indiana leaders agreed Thursday to modify new state laws that were billed as protecting religious freedom but drew criticism from across the country as opening the door to anti-gay discrimination.
The Republican governors of both states signed off on changes approved by the legislatures aimed at clarifying the intent behind the legislation.
To a large extent, the measures were modeled after a federal law enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. But critics of the new measures say they were designed with a different motive — 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.
Here's some of the background about these laws:
Q: What was the purpose of the 1993 federal law?
A: The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act arose from a case related to the use of peyote in a Native American ritual. It has since been used by other individuals who claimed the government was infringing on their religious rights, such as a Sikh woman who was fired by the IRS for wearing a 3-inch ceremonial dagger to work. 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. They are now on the books in 21 states.
Q: What's changed in recent years?
A: In the past two years, numerous judges across the country have struck down state bans on same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 37 states. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments April 28 in a case over the constitutionality of such bans that could legalize gay marriage nationwide. The push for religious freedom laws has been spurred by those developments and by the Supreme Court's ruling last year that Hobby Lobby and certain other private businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the free contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.
In another key case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that a photography studio violated the state's Human Rights Act by refusing to photograph a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony. The court rejected the studio's effort to invoke the state's religious freedom act, holding that the law applied only to lawsuits against a government agency, not to disputes between private parties. Partly in response to that case, conservative lawmakers in several states proposed religious-protection legislation aimed at shielding people from private discrimination lawsuits if they felt that doing business with same-sex couples violated their religious beliefs.
Q: What do the new state laws say?
A: The Indiana and Arkansas measures do not specifically mention gays and lesbians, though they had strong backing from lawmakers and conservative activists who have opposed same-sex marriage and were unhappy with its spread. The measures say that state laws and regulations cannot infringe on a person's religious practice unless the government can show that it has a compelling interest in doing so.
Q: How did Indiana and Arkansas revise their laws?
A: In response to widespread criticism, Indiana lawmakers passed an amendment prohibiting service providers from using the law as a legal defense for refusing to provide goods, services, 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 law would still offer protections to churches or other nonprofit religious organizations. The conservative Family Research Council, a strong supporter of the original measure, denounced the proposed changes, saying they would "gut religious freedom in Indiana."
The revised Arkansas measure only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals; supporters said that would prevent businesses from using it to deny services to individuals. Opponents contended the measure still needs explicit anti-discrimination language similar to Indiana's revised proposal.
Q: What's the situation in other states?
A: Religious freedom bills were introduced in more than a dozen states this year. Some measures have died already. A divisive bill in Georgia was stalled Thursday as the end of the 2015 session approached. In North Carolina, the House speaker said deliberations over a bill there would be slowed to give lawmakers time to see if the legislation would harm the state's economy. In Texas, a proposed amendment to the state constitution has been introduced that would prohibit the government or any other entity from imposing burdens on religious freedom, potentially opening the door for businesses to refuse to serve gay people on religious grounds.