Arizona's religious freedom bill riles gay rights supporters

By Bob Christie

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 9:02 p.m. MST

House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, (D) Phoenix, argues that House Bill 2153 would discriminate against gays and others on the House Floor in Phoenix on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. House Bill 2153, written by the conservative advocacty group Center for Arizona Policy and the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom, would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense in a lawsuit filed by another individual.

The Arizona Republic, Michael Schennum, AP Photo

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.

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