Arizona House passes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill

The bill would allow business owners to refuse service to gay customers out of ‘religious belief’

Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, a Democrat, argues on the House floor that House Bill 2153 would discriminate against gays and others.
Michael Schennum/The Arizona Republic/AP

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 first one to pass.

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 that their actions are based on a sincere religious belief and the claim places a burden on the exercise of their religion.

The Senate passed the bill a day earlier on a straight party-line vote of 17–13.

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, who introduced the bill, called it 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, as they did after the 2010 passage of SB1070, which 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."

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.

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

But Republicans countered that it was simply an added protection for the faithful who disapprove of gay marriage and want to be able to refuse participation.

"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 backed by the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), a socially 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.

"The Arizona Legislature sent a clear message today: In our state everyone is free to live and work according to their faith," said CAP President Cathi Herrod.

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

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 a rising 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 is one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Campbell, the minority leader, said during the House 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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