Arizona gov. vetoes controversial ‘religious freedom’ bill

Brewer shoots down law that she says ‘could result in unintended and negative consequences’

Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday announcing she had vetoed Senate Bill 1062.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on Wednesday vetoed a Republican bill that set off a national debate over gay rights, religion and discrimination and subjected her state to blistering criticism from major corporations and political leaders from both parties.

The bill, backed by Republicans in the Arizona Legislature, was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays. But opponents called it an open attack on Arizona's LGBT community.

The bill thrust Arizona into the national spotlight last week after both chambers of the state Legislature approved it. As the days passed, more and more groups, politicians and average citizens weighed in against Senate Bill 1062. Many took to social media to criticize the bill.

Prominent Phoenix business groups said it would be another black eye for the state and warned that businesses looking to expand into Arizona might not do so if the bill became law.

Companies such as Apple and American Airlines and politicians including Arizona's senior GOP senator, John McCain, were among those who urged Brewer to veto the legislation.

The governor was under intense pressure to veto the bill, including from three Republicans who had voted for it last week. They said in a letter to Brewer that while the intent of their vote "was to create a shield for all citizens' religious liberties, the bill has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance."

SB 1062 would allow people to use their religious beliefs as a defense against claims of discrimination. Backers cite a New Mexico Supreme Court decision that allowed a gay couple to sue a photographer who refused to document their wedding, even though the law that allowed that suit doesn't exist in Arizona.

Republican state Sen. Steve Yarbrough called his proposal a First Amendment issue during a 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 said it was a veiled attempt to legally discriminate against gay people and cite religious freedom as a defense.

"The heart of this bill would allow for discrimination versus gays and lesbians," said state Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix.

"You can't argue the fact that the bill will invite discrimination. That's the point of this bill. It is."

Supporters of the law criticized the governor's decision as a loss for religious freedom. 

“Freedom loses when fear overwhelms facts and a good bill is vetoed. Today’s veto enables the foes of faith to more easily suppress the freedom of the people of Arizona," said Doug Napier, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative group that supported the bill. 

The Center for Arizona Policy argued that the law was needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply clarified existing state law. "We see a growing hostility toward religion," said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group.

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 been passed by a state legislature. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.

The push in Arizona comes as an increasing number of conservative states grapple with ways to counter the growing legality of gay marriage. Arizona's voters approved a ban on gay marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. It is one of 29 states with such constitutional prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Federal judges have recently struck down those bans in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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