PHOENIX - A House panel voted Wednesday to void parts of local anti-discrimination ordinances designed to give protections to transgender individuals.
The legislation approved by the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee on a 7-4 party-line vote prohibits any community from enacting or enforcing any local law or rule that requires a business to let individuals use the restroom, locker or dressing room of his or her "gender identity or expression" choice.
The proposal, SB 1045, would also prohibit criminal prosecution of any individual or business for refusing to let someone into a restroom that the owner does not believe is gender-appropriate. And those denied admission could not sue.
Wednesday's vote came after a line of witnesses - many of them transgender - questioned the need for the measure and suggested it amounts to a type of discrimination.
But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he had no choice following the decision last month by Phoenix to expand its existing anti-discrimination ordinances to cover people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That law covers places of public accommodation.
Foes quickly dubbed the Phoenix law the "bathroom bill," saying it would pave the way for individuals who are anatomically male but self-identify as female to be able to demand access to facilities reserved for women.
Kavanagh's original proposal would have made it a crime, subject to a six-month jail term, for anyone to use a restroom designated for a gender that does not match what is on their birth certificate. That led to claims Arizona was enacting a "show me your papers" law before someone can go to the bathroom.
When that provoked an outcry, Kavanagh decided the proposal "went too far."
The new version says nothing about who can use what facilities. And businesses would remain free to allow customers to make their own decisions.
But Kavanagh said it ensures that individuals and firms who want to impose limits do not wind up in court or in jail. He said it would not become a license for businesses to discriminate.
"If you choose to designate your bathroom, your public showers and your locker rooms - and the latter two are more critical areas because that's where people are naked - if you choose to say 'male only' or 'female only' and you question somebody who doesn't fit that category, Phoenix can't lock you up and say you're a criminal, and that person can't sue you by virtue of some special lawsuit ability created by Phoenix law," he said.
Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson, disagreed. "We're empowering businesses to openly discriminate," she said.
Not just Phoenix firms would be affected. Other cities, including Tucson and Flagstaff, have similar anti-discrimination ordinances, and there was no testimony about complaints against businesses denying transgender individuals access to restrooms.
Tucsonan Claire Swinford said she sees this on a more personal level.
"There is not enough evidence to make a compelling case there is any risk to allowing transgendered persons to use a restroom that is proper to their gender identity," said Swinford, who is a transgender woman born as a male. "There is a great deal of evidence that not allowing us to creates a greater risk for us, which negatively impacts my right to be secure in my person."
Elizabeth Forsyth, president of the Arizona Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling, told lawmakers this is a real issue, saying one out of every 12 transgender individuals is murdered.
Swinford said she has heard there are people who are "uncomfortable" with transgender individuals in a restroom. "Discomfort is not a matter of safety," she said.
Michael Woodward, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, told his own story of spending the first 36 years of his life "trying to live in a female body I was born into."
Woodward told lawmakers he is happier than he ever has been. "And a lot of it is due to the fact that I'm no longer forced to use the ladies' room," he said. "Believe me, I was way more uncomfortable there than any woman ever was."
But Kavanagh said the feelings of the "overwhelming majority" of the population do matter and cannot be ignored. "This bill is about civility," he said. "Society has mores and customs."
Not everyone testified against the measure.
Nohl Rosen, owner of Panther TEK, a computer training and repair company in Phoenix, said the city ordinance "violated my rights as a business owner."
"Businesses deserve the right to dictate the policies in their establishment," he said. "This law takes that away from us."