Companies attack Arkansas religious freedom bill

Corporate opposition is growing to a religious freedom measure in Arkansas much like one in Indiana that's stirring nationwide controversy.

On Tuesday, Arkansas lawmakers passed the Republican-backed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says "governments should not substantially burden the free exercise of religion without compelling justification."

Technology company Acxiom (ACXM), a major employer in Arkansas, has joined Walmart (WMT) and Apple (AAPL) in opposing the measure, which now heads to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who has said he will sign it into law.

A spokesperson for Hutchinson said the governor would comment on the measure on Wednesday.

Proponents say a business should not be required to cater same-sex weddings, for instance, if it violates the owner's religious views; critics say it would let businesses deny service or otherwise discriminate against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.

In a statement, Little Rock-based Acxiom called on Hutchinson to veto the measure, it a "deliberate vehicle for enabling discrimination."

Telling CBS MoneyWatch that the issue is a matter of "human rights," Acxiom's chief legal and ethics officer, Jerry Jones, noted that the measure is being considered in a state that was the scene for some of the biggest battles during the Civil Rights era.

Acxiom's opposition follows criticism of the proposal by Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart.

The measure "sends the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state," Walmart spokesman Lorenzo Lopez wrote Tuesday in an email.

"[T]he whole thing very much hinges on the governor's popular appeal," Janine Parry, a professor at the University of Arkansas and director of the Arkansas Poll, said in an email. "The economic argument -- especially coming from inside his own house -- is opponents' best shot at giving him enough cover to somehow soft-peddle the matter, a la the Indiana governor."

In a nationally televised news conference Tuesday, Mike Pence, Indiana's Republican governor, argued that opponents had overstate the legislation's impact, but called on his legislature to "fix" the law to make it clear that it remained illegal to discriminate against anyone.

The measure is based on a federal law of the same name and that other states have passed similar bills without incident, Larry Page of the conservative Arkansas Faith & Ethics Council, told CBS MoneyWatch, adding: "Where are the horror stories?"

Gay rights groups in Arkansas gotten support from other members of the business community and have compiled a list of more than 100 firms that have pledged to serve everyone equally. Some were at a rally Monday at the state capital in Little Rock protesting the bill.

"We hope that our elected officials seriously weigh possible consequences, both intended and unintended, of their decisions regarding this matter," Jennifer Pierce, the head of Arkansas Pride, wrote in an email.

Randy Zook, the head of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas said there was a "wide range of opinions" among his members.

"We are trying to be as constructive as possible," Zook said. "At this point, we don't have a statement to make."

The University of Arkansas System, another major employer in the state, declined comment on the bill.

Dillard's (DDS), a retailer based in Little Rock, did not immediately reply to an emailed request for comment and Union Pacific (UNP), which also has a large presence in the state, said it had no position on the legislation.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.