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Updated Feb 27, 2014 - 5:34 pm

Religious freedom bill riles gay rights supporters

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature gave final approval Thursday to
legislation that allows business owners asserting their religious beliefs to
refuse service to gays and others, drawing backlash from Democrats who called
the proposal “state-sanctioned discrimination” and an embarrassment.

The 33-27 vote by the House sends the legislation to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer
and puts Arizona back at the forefront of a polarizing piece of legislation four
years after the state enacted an immigration crackdown that caused a national

Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio,
Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona’s plan is
the only one that has passed. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.

Republicans stressed that the bill is about protecting religious freedom and
not discrimination. They frequently cited the case of a New Mexico photographer
who was sued after refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple and said
Arizona needs a law to protect people in the state from heavy-handed actions by
courts and law enforcement.

The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in
any action brought by the government or individual claiming discrimination. It
also allows the business or person to seek an injunction once they show their
actions are based on a sincere religious belief and the claim places a burden on
the exercise of their religion.

The legislation prompted a heated debate on the floor of the House, touching on
issues such as the religious freedom, constitutional protections and civil

Opponents raised scenarios in which gay people in Arizona could be denied
service at a restaurant or refused medical treatment if a business owner thought
homosexuality was not in accordance with his religion. One lawmaker held up a
sign that read “NO GAYS ALLOWED” in arguing what could happen if the law took
effect, drawing a rebuke for violating rules that bar signs on the House floor.

Democrats also said there were a host of other scenarios not involving sexual
orientations where someone could raise their religious beliefs as a
discrimination defense.

The bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative
group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal is
needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply
clarifies existing state law.

“We see a growing hostility toward religion,” said Josh Kredit, legal counsel
for the group.

All but three Republicans in the House backed the bill Thursday evening. All three House Republicans who broke ranks said they had problems with
the proposal, though none elaborated at length.

“I disagree with the bill,” said Rep. Ethan Orr. “I think it’s a bad bill.”

The two others were Reps. Heather Carter and Kate Brophy McGee.

The Senate passed the bill a day earlier on a straight party-line vote of

Brewer doesn’t comment on pending legislation, but she vetoed a similar measure
last year. That action, however, came during an unrelated political standoff,
and it’s not clear whether she would support or reject this plan.

The legislation comes also as an increasing number of conservative states
grapple with ways to counter the increasing legality of gay marriage.

Arizona’s voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional
amendment in 2008. It’s one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to
the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal judges have recently
struck down bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough called his proposal a First Amendment issue
during the Senate debate.

“This bill is not about allowing discrimination,” Yarbrough said. “This bill
is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out
their faith.”

Democrats say it is an outright attack on the rights of gays and lesbians that
will reverberate through the economy because businesses and tourists will avoid
Arizona like they did after the passage SB1070 in 2010 that cracked down on

“This bill is about going after the rights of the LGBT community in Arizona,”
said Rep. Chad Campbell, the Democratic minority leader. “This is going to be
horrible for our economy.”

But Republicans said it was simply an added protection for the faithful in the
state who disapprove of gay marriage and want to be able to reject

“Please, I will accept you because you are a child of God, I love you because
you are a child of God,” said GOP Rep. Steve Montenegro. “But please don’t ask
me to go against my religious beliefs.”

“The heart of this bill would allow for discrimination versus gays and
lesbians,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. “You can’t argue the fact that
bill will invite discrimination. That’s the point of this bill. It is.”

The bill is similar to a proposal last year brought by Yarbrough but vetoed by
Brewer. That legislation also would have allowed people or religious groups to
sue if they believed they might be subject to a government regulation that
infringed on their religious rights. Yarbrough stripped a provision from the
bill in hopes Brewer will embrace the new version.

Civil liberties and secular groups countered that Yarbrough and the Center for
Arizona Policy had sought to minimize concerns that last year’s bill had
far-reaching and hidden implications. During the Senate debate Wednesday,
Democrats said the bill could allow people to break nearly any law and cite
religious freedom as a defense.

Yarbrough called those worries “unrealistic and unsupported hypotheticals”
and said criminal laws will continue to be prosecuted by the courts.

Rep. Chad Campbell of Phoenix, the Democratic minority leader, said during
debate that gays and lesbians across the country would get the message that
they’re not welcome in Arizona.

“Gov. Brewer rejected a similar bill last year, and I encourage her to do the same with SB 1062,” said Campbell. “We should be working on legislation that protects the rights of all people.”

But the House sponsor, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, said the bill had been blown out
of proportion.

“We’re making some tweaks here because of what’s been going on in other states
where people have been punished for their beliefs,” Farnsworth said.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, also said the Democrats were making too
much of the bill’s effect.

“Sometimes people’s rhetoric tends to inflame instead of explain,” Biggs
said. “And I would suggest if there is going to be a backlash because of 1062…it will because of the intemperate and inaccurate rhetoric.”

KTAR contributed to this report


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