PHOENIX — Gov. Jan Brewer is going to get the last word on whether Arizona business owners can cite their religion as a reason to turn away gays — and maybe others.
On a largely party-line vote, the state House late Thursday gave final approval to legislation providing a legal shield to individuals and businesses who face claims of discrimination, essentially saying a “sincerely held” religious belief can immunize that person or firm against lawsuits.
The Senate already has approved SB 1062.
Brewer has generally sided with groups such as the Center for Arizona Policy, which supports the legislation on the grounds that it keeps people from having to act against their religious beliefs.
But foes hope to convince business groups, which have so far stayed out of the fray, to convince the governor that having Arizona be the first — and potentially only — state to adopt this law is bad for attracting business.
Gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder would not comment, saying only that his boss will review it when she returns from Washington, D.C., where she is attending the National Governors Association conference.
Three Republicans joined the 24 Democrats in opposition: Ethan Orr from Tucson, Kate Brophy McGee from Phoenix and Heather Carter from Cave Creek.
Several hours of debate showed a sharp division remains on exactly what the measure would do.
Existing state and federal laws already say people can use their religious beliefs to avoid government regulations if they can show those rules or laws substantially burden the ability to exercise those beliefs. But they also say those beliefs do not trump regulations where there is a “compelling government interest” and where those rules are the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Proponents contend SB 1062 just extends those same rights in situations when the government is not involved, such as what happened in New Mexico, where a gay couple successfully sued a photographer who refused to take pictures at their wedding.
“This is state-sanctioned discrimination,” said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix. And Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said the legislation will create an “open season” to discriminate.
But Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, called those claims a “distortion.”
“What this bill is simply trying to bring forward is that you should not have to forfeit your religious freedoms and rights merely because you want to work or start a business in the state of Arizona,” he said.
How far someone could push that claim of religious protection, however, remained unclear.
Democrats suggested it would allow someone to claim that his religion does not believe in equal rights for women. But Republicans said there already are laws on the books preventing discrimination in public services and accommodations on account of gender or race.
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said the legislation ignores the fact that many cities, including his own, have anti-discrimination ordinances, and worried it would allow business owners to ignore those rules and block individuals who have been victimized from filing suit.
But Rep. John Kava-
nagh, R-Fountain Hills, called laws that prohibit discrimination against gays “ironic,” given that the country was founded by those fleeing religious persecution, and now the descendants of those people are now being prosecuted and sued for exercising their own religious freedoms.
“All this bill does is protect the religious freedom that the people who began this country came here to establish,” Kavanagh said.