Weak before the woke: Asa Hutchinson watered down a religious liberty bill when Walmart demanded it

Asa Hutchinson
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson speaks to reporters at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark., on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, about a drop in the number of people enrolled in the state's Medicaid program. (Andrew DeMillo/AP)

Weak before the woke: Asa Hutchinson watered down a religious liberty bill when Walmart demanded it

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While the Obama administration and its allies last decade waged an all-out war on the conscience rights and the free exercise of religion, Arkansas’s legislature stepped up to pass the Conscience Protection Act.

Corporate America, led by Walmart and Apple, objected to protecting religious people’s consciences, and so Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) refused to sign the bill until it was watered down.

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Now, with the Left’s culture warriors even more aggressive and tireless, trying to expel conservative views and institutions from public life, Hutchinson wants to be the Republican standard bearer. Hutchinson unofficially announced his presidential run over the weekend, but he has provided little evidence that he is the man for the job.

Let’s revisit Hutchinson’s Obama-era cave on religious liberty.

The Obama administration was going after a Catholic school in Georgia that had enforced its code of conduct policy by dismissing a gay teacher for marrying a man. In court, the administration was arguing that the government, not the Little Sisters of the Poor, gets to decide what violates the Sisters’ consciences. The Obama administration was also arguing in court that Hobby Lobby’s owners lost their free exercise of religion once they went into business.

In this context, Indiana passed a state law modeled on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and Arkansas followed suit. Hutchinson said he would sign the bill. Then corporate America went nuts.

Apple’s Tim Cook sounded the freakout siren in the pages of the Washington Post. “There’s something very dangerous happening in states across the country,” Cook warned.

“A wave of legislation, introduced in more than two dozen states, would allow people to discriminate against their neighbors…. On behalf of Apple, I’m standing up to oppose this new wave of legislation — wherever it emerges.”

Walmart followed a couple of days later. Walmart has its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, is the state’s largest employer, and is cozy with Hutchinson. Hutchinson deferred to Walmart and reversed his position, demanding that the bill be watered down.

Corporate America’s argument against the religious liberty laws in Indiana and Arkansas was mostly empty hand-waving about discrimination being bad. But to the degree it rested on anything substantive, it was a crazy theory that other corporations would claim religious objections to stuff like minimum wage law.

At the time, I wrote about those absurd slippery-slope arguments:

“The Left’s tirades against Indiana’s RFRA rely largely on paranoid predictions of what religious liberty might yield. RFRA “could be used as a cudgel by corporations to justify discrimination,” warns Judd Legum at the liberal Think Progress. We heard these same terrified warnings amidst the Hobby Lobby case: Unless we force Christian employers to pay their workers in the form of contraception, we’ll soon have Exxon Mobil declaring itself as Christian Scientist in order to axe all healthcare. Who knows? Maybe Comcast will come out as Salafist and all female employees will have to don the hijab.

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Corporate America’s argument was absurd on its face, and Hutchinson should have known that. Indeed, he probably did know better. But the version of the bill that Hutchinson demanded and then signed made it clear that employers could still be successfully sued for following their consciences in matters of faith.

One wonders if this change weighs on Hutchinson’s conscience, and whether he would ever stand up to corporate America, were he the GOP presidential nominee or the president.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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