PHOENIX – Arizona’s legislature approved a bill Thursday that allows business owners asserting their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays and others. Democrats called the proposal “state-sanctioned discrimination” and an embarrassment.
The 33-27 vote by the House sends the bill to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer.
The legislation prompted a heated debate on the floor of the Republican-dominated House, touching on issues such as religious freedom, constitutional protections and civil rights.
It comes as an increasing number of conservative U.S. states grapple with ways to counter the increasing legality of gay marriage.
Seventeen states, plus the Washington capital district, allow gay marriage, most of them in the Northeast. The movement toward legalizing gay marriage especially gained momentum after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year to strike down part of a federal law that prevented the government from recognizing same-sex marriages. On Thursday, Oregon’s attorney general announced she will not defend that state’s ban on gay marriage, joining the top lawyers in at least five other U.S. states who have made similar decisions.
Republicans said Arizona’s bill is about protecting religious freedom and not discrimination. They cited the case of a New Mexico photographer who was sued after refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple and said Arizona needs a law to protect people in the state from what they called heavy-handed actions by courts and law enforcement.
Opponents raised scenarios in which gay people in Arizona could be denied service at a restaurant or refused medical treatment if a business owner thought homosexuality was not in accordance with his religion. One lawmaker held up a sign that read “NO GAYS ALLOWED” in arguing what could happen if the law took effect, drawing a rebuke for violating House rules.
Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona’s plan is the only one that has passed.
The bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. “We see a growing hostility toward religion,” said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group.
All but three Republicans in the House backed the bill Thursday evening. The Senate passed the bill a day earlier on a straight party-line vote of 17-13.
Brewer doesn’t comment on pending legislation, but she vetoed a similar measure last year. That action, however, came during an unrelated political standoff, and it’s not clear whether she would support or reject this plan.
Arizona’s voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. It’s one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal judges have recently struck down bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.