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Arizona Senate advances bills for religious groups

PHOENIX — A little religion could soon go a long way in avoiding unpopular
government mandates.

The Arizona Senate passed a trio of bills Wednesday that seek to lower property
taxes for religious institutions and make it easier for some people to sue over
the First Amendment, much to the chagrin of civil liberties and secular groups
who claim Arizona lawmakers are violating the U.S. Constitution by favoring the
faithful over non-believers.

The Republican majority passed the bills amid opposition from Democratic
lawmakers and with little debate. The legislation was backed by the powerful
Center for Arizona Policy, which wields significant influence over conservative
lawmakers in the Legislature.

Opponents of the measures argue religious institutions shouldn’t receive
special privileges not afforded to all Arizonans. They claim the bills seek to
legalize discrimination and to stall the ongoing battle to extend equal rights
to gay and secular communities.

“It is a bad precedent that the religious community is setting for the rest of
the state,” said Democratic Sen. Ed Ableser of Tempe. “It is all about taking
what’s for you and not sacrificing for the other.”

Senate Bill 1178 would allow people to sue over potential violations of
religious freedom. It passed in a 17-11 vote. It now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer for
approval. The GOP-led House backed the measure in a 32-24 vote last week.

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough of Chandler, the measure’s sponsor, said the
bill would not expand what people can claim a religious exemption for or alter
the legal test that courts will use in religious freedom cases. He said the
bill was not aimed at undermining a recent ordinance by the City of Phoenix that
expanded protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“It does not grant any new substantive rights,” he said of the bill.

Civil liberties and secular groups counter that Yarbrough and the Center for
Arizona Policy have sought to downplay the bill’s far-reaching implications.
They say the bill would allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious
freedom as a defense.

“I feel like they are being a little bit disingenuous,” said Serah Blain,
executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, of reassurances that
the bill won’t drastically overhaul current state laws on religious freedom.
“Nobody really seems to have a clear sense of what this will do and that in of
itself makes this a dangerous bill. It seems irresponsible.”

Democratic Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford of Tucson said the measure attacks
women’s health rights and could allow businesses to deny services to gay couples
under the guise of religious liberty. She said the bill was not about religious
freedom.

“It’s instead about people trying to use religion to discriminate against gay
individuals even when doing so is illegal under the law,” she said.

Religious groups would also receive new economic privileges under the proposed
laws.

House Bill 2446 would allow churches to avoid paying property taxes on vacant
land, a practice already in place in Maricopa County. The Senate passed it in a
17-11 vote. The House passed it in March in a 35-24 vote that also fell along
party lines.

Property used for worship is currently tax-exempt, but proponents of the
measure say state and local governments need a clear policy on whether vacant
land should be included under the exemption. Small governments that haven’t
recognized the undeveloped land when sending out property tax bills would have
to change their policies if the measure became law.

“It’s basically how we administer a religious exemption in Maricopa County
right now. It would not materially affect how we do business in these
situations,” said Paul Petersen, spokesman for the Maricopa property assessor.

Ableser said swindlers will easily be able to take advantage of the tax
exemption by posing as a religious institution and then sitting on vacant land
before selling it for profit. State and local governments will likely turn to
other taxpayers to recover the lost revenue, he said.

“In essence, this is a property tax increase for the rest of us,” he said.

The original version of the bill would have protected properties not used for
religious worship, including student dormitories and shelters owned by religious
groups. Local property tax assessors said it went too far, and the measure was
subsequently tempered.

House Bill 2645 would allow religious schools to avoid providing unemployment
benefits to private school teachers and daycare workers. It passed in a 16-12
vote. The House passed the measure 36-23 in March.

“It’s extremely harmful to the individuals working at churches,” said
Ableser, who deemed the measure unchristian.

Republican Sen. Chester Crandell of Heber seemed annoyed by Ableser’s
theological interpretations.

“There was no place where Christ ever said that the government should reach
into my pocket and take the money out and give it to the poor,” Crandell said.

Arizona law already allows organizations operating primarily for religious
purpose to avoid paying for unemployment benefits. Proponents argue that the
proposed law is necessary after some state tax officials recently started
interpreting the current religious exemption so that it only applies to church
staff and not private school teachers. They predict religious schools will go
bankrupt if they have to pay for unemployment benefits.

Blain said lawmakers need to honor the separation between church and state
established by the First Amendment.

“Those are religious privilege bills,” she said. “They allow religious
organizations to receive benefits that secular organizations providing the same
services don’t have access to. It’s essentially an example of government
privileging religion over non-religion.”

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