Gay rights groups oppose religious protection bill


PHOENIX (AP) — A bill backed by majority Republicans designed to protect people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays and others is being debated in the Arizona House on Thursday, a day after the state Senate passed a similar measure over the objection of minority Democrats.

Democrats and civil rights groups opposed the bill being pushed by social conservatives, saying it would allow discriminatory actions by businesses and hurt the state's economy.

The Republican-dominated House is likely to pass the measure, and the bill could be on its way to GOP Gov. Jan Brewer's desk by the end of the day.

Brewer vetoed a similar proposal last year, but that came during a battle over her push to expand Medicaid in the state. Brewer doesn't comment on pending legislation.

The "religious freedom" bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that backs anti-abortion and conservative Christian legislation in the state and is opposed to gay marriage. The group argues the law 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.

Similar laws have been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho and Oklahoma, but Arizona's is the only one that is close to passage.

The push in Arizona comes 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 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 Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.

The Arizona bills allow people to claim their religious beliefs as a defense against claims of discrimination. Backers cite a New Mexico Supreme Court decision which allowed a gay couple to sue a photographer who refused to document their wedding.

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough called his proposal 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.

"The heart of this bill would allow for discrimination versus gays and lesbians," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "You can't argue the fact that bill will invite discrimination. That's the point of this bill. It is."

The bill is similar to a proposal last year brought by Yarbrough but vetoed by Brewer. That legislation also would have allowed people or religious groups to sue if they believed they might be subject to a government regulation that infringed on their religious rights. Yarbrough stripped a provision from the bill in hopes Brewer will embrace the new version.

Civil liberties and secular groups countered that Yarbrough and the Center for Arizona Policy had sought to minimize concerns that last year's bill had far-reaching and hidden implications. During the Senate debate Wednesday, Democrats said the bill could allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense.

Yarbrough called those worries "unrealistic and unsupported hypotheticals" and said criminal laws will continue to be prosecuted by the courts.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the Democrats' rhetoric was misplaced.

"Sometimes people's rhetoric tends to inflame instead of explain," Biggs said. "And I would suggest if there is going to be a backlash because of 1062 ... it will because of the intemperate and inaccurate rhetoric."