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These are stories pertaining to the Legislative Session for Arkansas

Arkansas lawmakers back to work after Spring Break, Governor signs medical conscience bill

The floor of the Arkansas Senate on Thursday, Feb. 23.
The floor of the Arkansas Senate on Thursday, Feb. 23.

Arkansas lawmakers are back in the state capitol on Monday following a short break in the current legislative session and passage of another controversial bill targeting the state's transgender population.

Member Station KUAR in Little Rock reports that members of the state's Legislative Council will consider a request by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to extend the state's current public health emergency, which is set to expire on Wednesday.

A bill that would establish minimum housing standards for most rental properties in the state will face its final vote in the House on Monday, and if approved, would go to the governor for a signature. Also facing a final vote in the Senate is a bill expanding the scope-of-practice for pharmacists.

In committee on Monday is a bill that would repeal the state's face mask mandate, though Gov. Hutchinson says he plans to end the mandate at the end of the month. Also in committee is a bill that would rename the Toltec Mounds Archaeological State Park after Chief Heckaton, who led Arkansas' Quapaw Tribe in the mid-19th century.

Lawmakers are reconvening after Gov. Hutchinson signed into law a measure allowing doctors to not treat a patient if it conflicts with their moral or religious objections.

The Associate Press reports that the measure, signed on Friday, says health care workers and institutions have the right to not participate in non-emergency treatments that violate their conscience. The new law won't take effect until late this summer.

Opponents of the law, including the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union, have said it will allow doctors to refuse to offer a host of services for LGBTQ patients. The state Chamber of Commerce also opposed the measure, saying it sends the wrong message about the state.

Hutchinson opposed a similar measure in 2017 that failed before a House committee. But he said the law he signed was narrower and limits the objections to particular health care services, not treating specific types of people.

"I support this right of conscience so long as emergency care is exempted and conscience objection cannot be used to deny general health service to any class of people," Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office. "Most importantly, the federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, and national origin continue to apply to the delivery of health care services."

Opponents have said types of health care that could be cut off include maintaining hormone treatments for transgender patients needing in-patient care for an infection, or grief counseling for a same-sex couple. They've also said it could also be used to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control, or by physicians assistants to override patient directives on end of life care

"There is no sugarcoating this: this bill is another brazen attempt to make it easier to discriminate against people and deny Arkansans the health care services they need," ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson said in a statement. The ACLU did not say whether it planned any legal action to try and block the law before it takes effect.

The law is among several measures targeting transgender people that have easily advanced through the majority-Republican Legislature this year. Hutchinson on Thursday signed a law that will prohibit transgender women and girls from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

A final vote is scheduled Monday on another proposal that would prohibit gender confirming treatments and surgery for minors.

The Human Rights Campaign announced Friday that it would air a television ad in Arkansas during the Arkansas-Oral Roberts game in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night denouncing measures such as the transgender athlete restrictions in Arkansas and other states.

"Trans kids are kids. They don't deserve this cruelty," the 30-second spot says.

The bills are advancing as a hate crimes measure backed by Hutchinson has stalled in the Legislature after facing resistance from conservatives. The bill would impose additional penalties for committing a crime against someone because of their characteristics, including their sexual orientation or gender identity.