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Freedom to discriminate? Controversial Arizona bill takes step toward becoming law

Published time: February 21, 2014 22:51
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.(Reuters / Joshua Lott)

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.(Reuters / Joshua Lott)

The Arizona state Senate approved legislation Wednesday permitting businesses in the state to refuse service to potential customers based on an owner’s religious beliefs, infuriating equal rights advocates who claim the bill legalizes LGBT discrimination.

The bill, known officially as Senate Bill 1062, was approved by the Republican-controlled Senate, which voted along strict party lines. State Democrats proposed eight amendments to the bill in an attempt to stop what they decried as discrimination against the gay and lesbian community, but each of those efforts failed.

The most polarizing part of the bill reads, in part:

“'Exercise of religion' means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.”

State Senator Steve Yarbrough, the bill’s sponsor, said he has been pressing for the bill because of a New Mexico state Supreme Court ruling that allowed a gay couple to sue a photographer for refusing to take pictures at their wedding.

The bill’s opponents say that Yarbrough and other social conservatives are trying to portray themselves as martyrs as they aim to pass a vague law that would leave widespread discrimination unchecked.

The Arizona Republic reported that the bill, which has a counterpart in the state House of Representatives known as HB 2153, was written by the conservative Center for Arizona Policy and Alliance Defending Freedom – a non-profit Christian lobby group that dedicates funding to the pro-life movement and has long opposed marriage equality.

The bill now heads to the desk of Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She has five days to sign or veto the bill. If she chooses to ignore it, it will automatically become law. While the governor has given little indication about which way she is leaning, Brewer has forged her reputation as a conservative on similar hot button social issues like immigration and abortion.

EJ Montini, a columnist with the Arizona Republic, said that SB 1062 sets a dangerous precedent for people of various backgrounds.

Essentially what it would do is allow people to refuse service to people who may be gay, who may be of certain religious affiliations - we don’t know, there could be a lot of exposure in this particular bill- only because they have a particular religious belief,” he said. “We really have no issue like this in Arizona and this is extremists in the legislature essentially appeasing zealots out in the community...It is the most ungodly way to view religious freedom.”

While Arizona would be the first state in the US to approve such a bill, other right-leaning states including Idaho, South Dakota, and Kansas have considered similar legislation. A number of the bills have come in response to the federal government’s recent announcement that same-sex couples will be given the same treatment as heterosexual couples under current tax law.