PHOENIX — Rejecting last-minute pleas from supporters, Gov. Jan Brewer Wednesday vetoed controversial legislation billed as protecting religious freedom.
In her first veto of the session, Brewer said she understands the concerns of businesses that fear they would be forced to violate their religious beliefs. And she said those concerns are “not unfounded,” taking a slap at the Obama administration and courts, which she said have increased “government’s encroachment upon our religious freedoms.”
But Brewer called the measure flawed.
“The bill is broadly worded and could result in unintended consequences,” she said. While proponents of SB 1062 said they were seeking to protect businesses, Brewer said, “the business community overwhelmingly opposes the proposed law.”
The content of the legislation, however, was only part of the reason for the veto.
Brewer said she made her priorities for the session “abundantly clear,” including enacting a “responsible budget” for the state and fixing “a broken child-protection system.”
Instead, Brewer said, she got this as the first policy measure of the session, suggesting it appears to be a solution in search of a problem.
“SB 1062 does not address a specific and present concern related to religious liberties in Arizona,” she said in prepared comments. “I have not heard one example in Arizona where business owners’ religious liberty has been violated.”
The governor also noted several Republican legislators who voted for the measure are now having second thoughts and have asked her to veto it.
The governor sidestepped the whole question of whether SB 1062, in expanding the ability of business owners to use their religion as a shield to avoid having to serve some customers, would have resulted in what Sheila Kloefkorn of the Human Rights Coalition called a “license to discriminate,” especially against gays.
Nor did she address counterclaims by supporters who said this has nothing to do with sexual orientation, particularly as Arizona law already permits discrimination against gays. In fact, she never mentioned the issue of sexual orientation, at least not directly.
“I want you to know that I understand that long-held norms about marriage and family are being challenged as never before,” Brewer said. “Our society is undergoing many dramatic changes. However, I sincerely believe SB 1062 has the potential to create more problems than in purports to solve.”
Existing Arizona law allows a business to ignore government rules and laws against discrimination if it can show they would interfere with the owners’ ability to practice a “sincerely held” religious belief. SB 1062 would have expanded that to provide a defense in civil lawsuits in which the government is not involved.
The governor said she fears the change “could divide Arizona in ways you cannot even imagine and no one would ever want.”
Brewer’s veto drew swift reaction from Cathi Herrod, president of the religiously oriented Center for Arizona Policy, which had helped craft the measure and push it through.
While not criticizing the governor directly, Herrod said Brewer caved to pressure from opponents who wanted to “distort this bill rather than debate its merits,” which Herrod said had nothing to do with discrimination against gays and everything to do with religious liberty.
“The religious beliefs of all Arizonans must be respected, and this bill did nothing more than affirm that,” Herrod said in her statement.
The veto came after extensive lobbying, not just by civil-rights groups but also from virtually every business organization in the state, as well as several current and future major employers.
She also heard from the tourism industry fearful of the state losing conventions and visitors, much as what happened after the governor signed SB 1070 in 2010, which was aimed at illegal immigration but perceived by some as an attack on Hispanics.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, the sponsor of the legislation, made a personal appeal to Brewer to sign the measure and ignore the claims of those who said it would encourage or condone discrimination.
“I believe the business community has been misinformed, as well as a lot of other folks, about what the bill actually did,” he said.
The senator also said the concerns of the gay community about being victims of discrimination are misplaced.
Those business concerns already were playing out even before Brewer quashed the measure.
On Wednesday, the Hispanic National Bar Association announced it was killing its scheduled 40th annual convention scheduled for Phoenix in September 2015.
But late Wednesday, after the veto, Gonzalo de la Melena Jr., president of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he would encourage the bar association to reconsider.
Less clear is what will happen with four firms that Barry Broome, president of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said had told him within hours of SB 1062 passing they were no longer considering the Phoenix area for new locations “specifically because of this bill.” Broome could not be reached late Wednesday.
Businesses were not alone in encouraging a veto. Every major GOP gubernatorial contender also urged the governor to kill it, with the exception of state Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson. He said supporters need to try again in 2015, presumably when Brewer is no longer governor.
Brewer’s decision also is a defeat for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which bills itself as a Christian public-interest law firm that pushed for the change.
“We’re seeing growing hostility in America against people of faith,” said Doug Napier, a senior vice president with the organization. He said while courts have been good about protecting freedom of religion in a synagogue or church, that hasn’t extended to daily life.
“People don’t just live out their faith on Sundays or Saturdays,” he said. “They have to be protected throughout the week as well.”