LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that, according to its sponsor, would protect Arkansans from undue burdens on the free exercise of religion.

LITTLE ROCK — A House committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that, according to its sponsor, would protect Arkansans from undue burdens on the free exercise of religion.


After nearly two hours of sometimes contentious debate and testimony, the House Judiciary Committee gave a "do pass" recommendation to House Bill 1228 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville. The bill cleared the committee in a voice vote with several "no" votes heard.


HB 1228, titled the Conscience Protection Act, would bar the state from placing a burden on a person’s exercise of religion unless doing so furthers a compelling government interest and the state uses the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. It also would create remedies and penalties for violations of religious protections.


"If it’s a butcher who is a Muslim and doesn’t deal in pork, you can’t make him deal in pork," Ballinger told the committee. "If it’s a Christian who is against same-sex marriage, you can’t make him perform a same-sex marriage."


Mike Mosley, an attorney with the Arkansas Municipal League, testified against the bill, saying it could open the door to a variety of lawsuits based upon religious grounds that cities would have to defend.


"Whether a lawsuit is frivolous or not, it will still cost money to defend," he said.


Mosley also said the law would duplicate existing federal law that already protects religious expression, namely, the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, or RFRA.


Mark Whitmore, an attorney with the Association of Arkansas Counties, took committee members to task for not obtaining a cost analysis of the bill and accused the members of not giving proper consideration to possible unintended consequences of the bill.


"You are supposed to ask the costs," he said. "That is the obligation of the House, the House rules, to investigate the cost to the cities and counties."


Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, the committee’s chairman, told Whitmore, "I think we’ll be the judge of what we do around here, okay?"


J. Fred Hart, a Little Rock attorney, said other states have passed similar laws without the repercussions opponents feared.


"Where is the record of this tsunami of litigation Mr. Mosley and Mr. Whitmore are afraid of? It’s not in other states and I don’t see it happening here," Hart said.


Church pastors weighed in on both sides of the issue.


Rep. Donnie Copeland, R-Little Rock, pastor of North Little Rock’s Apostolic Church, dismissed the notion that opposition to the measure had any basis in real fear of litigation costs, saying it was nothing but scare tactics being advanced to thwart good legislation.


Frank LeBlanc, pastor of Westover Hills Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, and Marie O’Connell, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, both spoke against the bill, arguing that it would legalize discrimination directed specifically toward to the LGBT community.


"Discrimination is not holy, and I urge you to not to take us back to times before 1964 and the power of prejudice in the name of religion," LeBlanc said.


O’Connell said the legislation is a response to a Fayetteville city ordinance passed last summer, and repealed by Fayetteville voters in December, to offer protections to that city’s LGBT community.


"I’m coming from a place where my religious experience has taught me that there are some people who have no protection," she said. "As Christians, I believe we are sometimes called upon to stand beside people who have no rights, who need them to be protected. As Christians, our rights are not among those that are threatened today."


The bill now heads to the full House.