LITTLE ROCK, AR (AP) - With the nation's highest court set to hear arguments next month over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans, legislation is advancing in several states that critics say gives businesses license to deny services to gays and lesbians on religious grounds.
More than a dozen states this year are considering measures aimed at preventing government from infringing on people's religious beliefs. Supporters say the proposals mirror decades-old protections in federal law, while opponents say they're a license for state-endorsed discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Here are some answers about the national movement for these laws:
Q: WHAT DO THESE PROPOSALS CALL FOR?
Sixteen states have introduced legislation this year calling for, or altering, a state religious freedom law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of these proposals prohibit or restrict laws, regulations or other actions that burden someone's religious practices unless a "compelling" interest is proven. Examples of practices conservative groups have said they're trying to prohibit include the government compelling people to provide such things as catering or photography for same-sex weddings or other activities they find objectionable on religious grounds. They've also said the measures would help churches that want to feed the homeless but are barred doing so by local ordinances. Opponents, however, say it would lead to widespread discrimination against the LGBT community and have compared it to the way religion was used to justify slavery and racial segregation.
Q: IS THIS A NEW IDEA?
A: No. The legislation is patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and 20 states now have similar laws on the books.
Q: WHY ARE THEY GAINING SUPPORT NOW?
A: The climate has changed since this legislation first surfaced. Judges across the country ruled against state laws and amendments defining marriage as between a man and a woman since the U.S. Supreme Court struck part of a federal anti-gay marriage law in June 2013, and gay marriage is legal in more than half of the U.S. Justices will hear arguments April 28 in a case over the constitutionality of such bans in a case that could legalize gay marriage nationwide. The push for the laws also has been buoyed by the Supreme Court's ruling last year that Hobby Lobby and other closely held private businesses with religious objections could opt out of providing the free contraceptive coverage required by the Affordable Care Act.
Q: WILL THERE BE A BROAD EXPANSION OF THESE LAWS?
A: Mississippi approved a religious protection law last year, and Indiana became the first state to adopt one this year with a measure Gov. Mike Pence signed into law Thursday. Arkansas is poised to follow suit, with a final vote expected next week in the House on legislation that Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he'll sign. The future is murkier for proposals in several other states, such as Georgia, where a religious protection bill has stalled before a House committee.
Q: WHAT'S THE FALLOUT?
A: Opponents of the measures are hoping that to halt these measures with the same type of backlash from businesses that prompted former Gov. Jan Brewer to veto similar legislation last year in Arizona. In Arkansas, retail giant Wal-Mart has said the religious protection proposal sends the wrong message about its home state, and the Human Rights Campaign has launched an ad campaign in Silicon Valley targeting technology firms Hutchinson is trying to lure to the state.. The NCAA, whose offices are located in Indianapolis, has expressed concerns about Indiana's law and suggested it could move future events elsewhere.
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