By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona Governor Jan Brewer came under mounting pressure on Tuesday from other prominent Republicans and consultants to veto a controversial bill described by critics as a license to discriminate against gays and others in the name of religion.
Brewer has yet to say publicly whether she will sign or veto the bill, which would allow business owners to cite their personal religious beliefs as legal justification for refusing to serve same-sex couples or any other prospective customers.
The measure passed the Republican-controlled state legislature last week, putting Brewer in the crosshairs of a contentious political debate at a time when she has sought to ease partisan discord while focusing on efforts to revive Arizona's economy.
Brewer, who is scheduled to leave office at the end of this year under term limits, became a lightning rod of controversy early in her tenure for her support of tough measures to clamp down on illegal immigration. The immigration crackdown, decried by liberals, prompted some groups to boycott the state.
The political right has hailed the newly passed bill as a necessary defense of religious freedom and the left has denounced it as a form of state-sanctioned discrimination.
Two outside political consultants to Brewer told Reuters they had each urged her to veto the measure, with one saying her track record on such issues made him think she was leaning in that direction. But both stressed no decision had been taken by Brewer.
"We had a vigorous discussion, and I said that she should veto the bill," longtime political strategist Chuck Coughlin said in an interview, declining to reveal further details about the private conversation. "She will let everyone know when she makes up her mind."
The other senior adviser pressing for a veto, Doug Cole, said the governor planned to sit down with groups from both sides of the debate on Wednesday to hear their perspectives.
In a sign of the growing unease over the measure, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president, weighed into the debate via Twitter on Tuesday: "veto of #SB1062 is right."
Another former Republican candidate for president, Arizona Senator John McCain, said earlier on CNN that passage of the bill "hurts the image of the state."
Reflecting concern in the business community, American Airlines Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker, whose company has merged with Tempe, Arizona-based U.S. Airways and has a major hub in Phoenix, wrote a letter to Brewer urging a veto.
"Our economy thrives best when the doors of commerce are open to all," he wrote. "This bill sends the wrong message."
GAY MARRIAGE MOMENTUM ELSEWHERE
Brewer has until Saturday to sign the bill into law or veto it. If she takes no action, the measure will automatically go into effect 91 days after the current legislative session ends.
The measure surfaced following a string of federal court victories by gay activists seeking to strike down restrictions on same-sex marriage in several states, including New Mexico, Utah, Kentucky and Virginia.
Seventeen U.S. states and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.
Arizona is among more than 30 states that still ban gay or lesbian couples from marrying. Supporters of the Arizona measure argue that business owners, however, remain vulnerable to lawsuits should they refuse for religious reasons to provide services to gay couples.
Under the legislation, a business would be immune to a discrimination lawsuit if a decision to deny service was motivated by a "sincerely held" religious faith and if providing service would substantially burden the exercise of those beliefs.
McCain, in his most expansive remarks on the issue so far, said the bill could damage the state. He cited the strong response from Arizona business leaders, including the state's Chamber of Commerce, criticizing the measure.
"This is going to hurt the state of Arizona's economy, and frankly, our image. So, I hope that the governor of Arizona will veto this and we move on," he said, adding that he has not talked directly with Brewer about the proposal.
The measure is being pushed by the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which helped write the proposal and says it actually aims at protecting the religious rights of all.
Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said Apple Inc had also requested a veto in a conversation with the governor over the weekend. Three Republican state senators said on Monday they had reconsidered their support for the bill, and urged a veto.
Apple has announced plans to open a manufacturing facility in Arizona that is expected to employ 700 workers in partnership with mineral crystal specialist GT Advanced Technologies Inc.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)