PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature gave final approval to legislation that allows business owners asserting their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays, drawing backlash from Democrats who called the proposal "state-sanctioned discrimination" and an embarrassment.
The 33-27 vote by the House Thursday evening 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 furor.
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 rights.
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 Senate Bill 1062 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 17-13.
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 appeal.
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 immigration.
"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 participating.
"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 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.
"We're telling them, 'We don't like you. We don't want you here. We're not going to protect you," he said.
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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."