PHOENIX — State senators voted Wednesday to let businesses refuse to serve gays based on owners' "sincerely held" religious beliefs.
The 17-13 vote along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, came after supporters defeated an attempt to extend existing employment laws that bar discrimination based on religion and race to also include sexual orientation. Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said that's a separate issue from what he is trying to do.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said that's precisely the issue.
"The bill opens the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians," he said.
Yarbrough, however, said foes of SB 1062 are twisting what his legislation says.
"This bill is not about discrimination," he said. "It's about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith."
A similar measure is awaiting a vote in the House, probably later today.
Arizona already has laws which protect individuals and businesses from any state action which substantially interferes with their right to exercise their religion. This bill extends that protection to cover what essentially are private transactions.
The push follows a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court which said a gay couple could sue a photographer who refused on religious grounds to take pictures of their nuptials. Yarbrough's legislation would preclude such a ruling here.
But Gallardo said this legislation makes one person's religious freedom an attack on others.
"We all have the right to our religious beliefs," he said.
"But I do not agree that we have the right to discriminate because of our religious beliefs," Gallardo continued. "I do not believe we have to throw our religious beliefs to others that don't share our same beliefs."
Sen. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, said that, issues of discrimination aside, the legislation is bad for business. She feared Arizona state would face the same boycotts it did when former Gov. Evan Mecham rescinded a state holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1980s and after Arizona enacted SB 1070 in 2010, a measure aimed at dealing with illegal immigration which some saw as an attack on Hispanics.
But Yarbrough said foes are missing the point of why the Founding Fathers crafted religious protections in the First Amendment.
"One's faith, at least in America, extended to the workplace, to the public square and to all aspects of our lives," he said. And Yarbrough said SB 1062 is "aimed at preventing the rising attempts at discriminating against folks because they are sincere and serious about the free exercise of their religious faith."
Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu, agreed.
"A person does not lose their First Amendment freedoms when they start a business," she said. "In America, people are free to live and work according to their faith."
Foes, however, sought to concentrate on what they said would be more concrete effects of such a law.
Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, said the measure would allow a hotel operator who believes Mormonism is a cult to refuse to provide rooms to a family who walked in wearing Brigham Young T-shirts, indicating their religion.
Yarbrough did not specifically dispute that. But he said the question of whether such an action would be allowed would be based on whether the government has a "compelling interest" in forbidding such discrimination and whether any laws were the least restrictive necessary.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, wondered openly whether SB 1062 would provide new license for people like Warren Jeffs, head of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, to act against those who refuse to follow his edicts.
And Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, said the wording of the measure even would allow those who worship Satan to use their beliefs as a legal shield.
Yarbrough, however, said the First Amendment is broadly crafted for a reason.
"I understand that the freedom of religion can be inconvenient," he said. "But this is what our Constitution contemplates.''
Unable to block the measure, Gallardo tried what he called a notice requirement for those businesses that want to assert their religious freedom to refuse to serve gays.
"If there is an organization or a business out there that wants to use the defense of religious freedom, I believe that consumers have a right to know," he said. Yarbrough, however, got the GOP majority to reject the amendment.
Gallardo said opposition to consumer notice is no surprise. Any firm which openly advertises such discrimination would be boycotted and go out of business, he said.