A battle in Arizona over bill that allows businesses to refuse service to gays

PHOENIX — Four years after igniting a national debate over immigration, the Arizona Legislature has jumped into the battle over gay rights with a bill that had opponents on Friday predicting boycotts against the state.

The legislation allows business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to refuse service to gays, and all eyes are on Gov. Jan Brewer (R) as she decides whether to sign the bill. A decision is likely this week.

The conservative governor is already feeling pressure from businesses to veto the bill, which passed late Thursday. A prominent Phoenix group says it would be another black eye for a state that saw a national backlash over its 2010 immigration crackdown law, SB1070. Opponents also pointed out that the legislation would serve as a major distraction as Arizona prepares to host the Super Bowl next year.

But Brewer will also face pressure to sign the bill from social conservatives who backed it as religious rights legislation.

Brewer, who is deeply religious but also pro-business, is caught in the middle. She has not taken a public position on the bill.

Social conservatives and libertarian-minded members of the GOP say the legislation protects the First Amendment rights of business owners who are expressing their religious beliefs.

The legislation was passed over the objections of Democrats who said it was clearly designed to allow discrimination against gays. All but three Republicans in the Legislature voted for the bill.

Barry Broome, the president and chief executive of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, urged the governor to veto the bill and said four companies have already put plans to open facilities in Arizona on hold until they see if the bill becomes law. The impact could mean the potential loss of “thousands of jobs,” Broome said.

In terms of wooing businesses, Broome said the bill is far more damaging than SB1070 was.

“This is coming out of left field . . . from a bunch of demagogues who don’t care about Arizona’s future,” Broome said. “I think the political consequences are going to be greater than people might think.”

Republicans defended the proposal during two days of debate in the House and Senate, saying the bill is only a “modest update” of the state’s existing religious freedom law, which mirrors existing federal legislation. 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.

“The world’s on its ear,” said state Rep. John Allen (R), who supported the bill. “It’s alien to me that a business owner can’t reflect his faith in his business.”

The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any action brought by the government or an 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 that the claim places a burden on the exercise of their religion.

Arizona is one of several states with religious freedom laws, and the proposal in question would expand the act in ways that supporters say do not amount to radical revisions.

The bill’s fate should be clear this week. Brewer will have five days after her office receives the bill to act, and it probably won’t reach her desk until Monday.

She vetoed similar legislation last year, but that came during a bill-signing moratorium she put in place while she battled to get recalcitrant conservatives in the Legislature to pass a Medicaid expansion. Still, the veto might be a hint that she won’t go along again. And she has knocked down other controversial bills, including a 2011 bill that would have required President Obama and other presidential candidates to prove their U.S. citizenship before their names could appear on the state’s ballot.

State Rep. Demion Clinco, a Tucson Democrat who is openly gay, called the bill “toxic” and said it will validate attacks on gays and lesbians.

“It actually creates some sort of credibility to be able to tell someone, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t serve you in my restaurant or my place of business or provide you services because you’re different or because of your sexuality,’ ” Clinco said.

Josh Kredit, an attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy, which helped to draft the legislation, said it would not add any new substantive legal rights for business owners.

“We are clarifying the protection we thought existed. We’re not saying you have carte blanche to do whatever you want,” Kredit said.

Religious groups were split. Kredit’s group is evangelical Christian, and the Arizona Catholic Conference backs the bill. The Episcopal Diocese of Arizona opposes it.

— Associated Press

 
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