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Once unifying, religious freedom laws have become divisive

In the span of a week, legislation aimed at protecting individual religious freedoms — adopted by a near unanimous Congress more than two decades ago and present in 20 states — went from benign measures with broad support to being attacked as a new "license to discriminate."

Measures enacted in Arkansas and Indiana drew fire for allegedly providing "cover" to individuals and businesses wanting to say no to baking cakes or taking photographs of same-sex weddings. The bills were hurriedly updated this week by lawmakers in both states.

"However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward," Gov. Mike Pence, a Republican, said Thursday evening in a statement. Pence asserted the changes made to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will bar using religion as a defense for discrimination by Indiana businesses.

"We enjoy an international reputation for the hospitality, generosity, tolerance and kindness of our people. Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan; it is our way of life," Pence added.

According to The Associated Press, "Arkansas was able to avert much of the fallout Indiana has seen by making changes before (Republican Gov. Asa) Hutchinson signed the law. The revised language more closely mirrors the 1993 federal law and only addresses actions by the government, not by businesses or individuals."

Congress passed the original RFRA, and about 18 states followed suit after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal law could not be imposed on individual states. In anticipation of the high court legalizing same-sex marriage, several state legislatures considered adopting RFRAs to protect religious objectors to gay marriage.

Although supporters of the bills denied marriage was the motive for the RFRA resurgence, the national conversation over the Indiana and Arkansas measures quickly shifted from protecting the rights of Amish to operate horse-drawn buggies on rural highways or Muslim women to wear head coverings into questions of how florists, bakers and photographers would respond to service requests for same-sex marriages.

Apple chief executive Timothy D. Cook blasted the measures in a Washington Post opinion article and civil rights movement veteran Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said the new bills "are just as wrong as laws that allowed racial segregation a century ago if they allow people to discriminate."

Fortune magazine noted when the original RFRA passed 22 years ago it had the support of the National Association of Evangelicals and the American Civil Liberties Union; the National Islamic Prison Association and B’nai B’rith; the Traditional Values Coalition and People for The American Way.

According to Fortune, the change in attitude toward recent bills was "partly because the state laws (were) not identical to the federal legislation. And of course, the huge advancement in LGBT rights and the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage provide a wholly different backdrop to the recent legislation than the one present in 1993."

A notable exception to the uproar in Indiana and Arkansas, were the measures enacted in Utah last month protecting both gay rights and religious beliefs, the Deseret News noted this week. Instead adopting a state RFRA, lawmakers passed a nondiscrimination law on housing and employment with religious exemptions.

"The Utah law grants equal protections to LGBT people and people of faith. It says that you can't discriminate against someone because of their religious beliefs, their sexual orientation or their gender identity," University of Utah law professor Cliff Rosky said. Rosky argued the other measures, unamended, legalized "discrimination based on religion."

The political fallout over the Indiana and Arkansas religious freedom bills could hurt Republican prospects going forward, NPR's Mara Liasson reported. The tussle over the most recent religious freedom bills, she said, represents "a much bigger, much more fundamental problem for the GOP. … The Republicans can't appeal to young voters if they're on the wrong side of gay marriage, because gay rights is a symbol of tolerance for so many young voters — not to mention suburban women."

And USNews.com added, "Republicans will now have to navigate between placating the constituency that fills its coffers and pandering to social conservatives who are especially influential during primary season," adding, "the national battle over the (Indiana) law increased momentum toward broader discrimination protections for LGBT people."

But while public support for same-sex marriage is increasing, a majority of Americans also support the right for a business owner to not accommodate a gay marriage for religious reasons, according to an AP survey.

The AP-GfK poll found "57 percent of Americans think wedding-related businesses should be allowed to refuse services to gay and lesbian couples because of religious objections, while 39 percent think that should not be allowed.

"That poll also found half of Americans think state and local officials who issue marriage licenses in states where it is legal for gay couples to marry should be exempt from issuing licenses to same-sex couples if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. Slightly fewer (46 percent) said they should still be required to issue them."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner