US & Canada

Arkansas lawmakers pass 'religion freedom' bill

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Media captionIndiana residents say the law there has been an embarrassment

Arkansas has approved a religious freedom bill similar to one that has caused a storm of protest in Indiana.

Critics of the law say it could be used to discriminate against gay people because it gives business owners a legal defence based on their faith.

The measure now requires the signature of Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson, but it already has his backing.

A law signed last week in Indiana sparked a national outcry and calls to boycott the state.

Apple, Yelp, Angie's List, the White House and Warren Buffett were among its critics.

The law's critics...

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Image caption Takei called for a boycott of Indiana

Sport: National Collegiate Athletic Association, NBA, basketball players Charles Barkley and Jason Collins

Business: Angie's List, Yelp, Warren Buffett, Apple, Gap, Levi's

Politics: White House, Hillary Clinton, governors of New York, Connecticut and Washington state, cities San Francisco, Indianapolis and Seattle

Celebrities: Miley Cyrus, George Takei, Larry King

The furore forced the Indiana governor to say he wanted state lawmakers to add language to the law to clarify that it is not discriminatory.

Now the focus shifts to Arkansas, where hundreds of people filled the state capitol building for a second day to protest against the measure.

Some held signs that read "Hate is Not Holy" and "We are Open for Business for All Arkansans".

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Image caption Demonstrators in Little Rock lost their battle to stop the bill
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Image caption Indiana Governor Mike Pence caved in to the pressure and promised amendments

The bill would prohibit state and local governments from infringing on a person's religious beliefs without a "compelling" reason.

While it makes no mention of gay people, there is a fear that businesses who are religiously opposed to same-sex weddings could refuse them service and have a legal defence against a lawsuit.

Unlike other US states with similar laws, Indiana and Arkansas grant corporations the right to religious freedom.

Analysis - Jon Sopel, BBC North America editor

Mr Pence was asked at the news conference whether he had been surprised by all the fuss the legislation has provoked.

He said he was amazed. Needless to say many remain unconvinced by that explanation.

All of which leaves broadly only two conclusions.

Mike Pence is a knave or naive. And that is not a good place for a politician to be.

A messy political U-turn in Indiana

Governor Mike Pence, who signed the Indiana bill into law last week, said he "was proud to sign" it but denied the law gave businesses the right to deny services to anyone.

In recent days the governors of Connecticut, Washington state and New York have taken action against him.

They banned state-funded travel to Indiana and other states that simultaneously have Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) measures and no balancing law to protect gays and lesbians from discrimination.

But there was some support for the laws too.

The Family Research Council applauded Arkansas and said there would be no need for RFRAs "if there were not a growing hostility toward faith".

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