PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature has passed a controversial religion bill that is again thrusting Arizona into the national spotlight in a debate over discrimination.
House Bill 2153 would allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit.
The bill, which has been described by opponents as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, has drawn national media coverage.
Opponents have dubbed it the “right to discriminate” bill and say it could prompt an economic backlash against the state, similar to what they say occurred when the state passed a controversial immigration law in 2010.
Proponents argue the bill is simply a tweak to existing state religious-freedom laws to ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to do something that goes against their beliefs.
The bill will be sent to Gov. Jan Brewer, who has five days to sign it into law, veto it or do nothing and allow it to become law.
Specifically, the legislation proposes to:
â€¢ Expand the state’s definition of the exercise of religion to include both the practice and observance of religion.
â€¢ Allow someone to assert a legal claim of free exercise of religion regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceedings.
â€¢ Expand those protected under the state’s free-exercise-of-religion law to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.”
â€¢ In order to assert a free-exercise-of-religion defense, the individual, business or church must establish that its action is motivated by a religious belief, that the belief is sincerely held and that the belief is substantially burdened.
The votes on the bill were mostly along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing. Three Republicans voted against it.
Proponents say the bill would, for example, protect a wedding photographer who declined to take photos of a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony due to the photographer’s religious beliefs.
“We are trying to protect people’s religious liberties,” said Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro. “We don’t want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if you are a small-business owner.”
But opponents say it could also protect a corporation that refused to hire anyone who wasn’t Christian and could block members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community from access to nearly any business or service.
“The message that’s interpreted is, ‘We want you to work here, but we are not going to go out of our way to protect you, to protect your rights, to protect your family,'” said Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego. “God forbid should someone come to the Super Bowl and come to a restaurant that is not going to allow them in.”
Similar debates have occurred nationwide this year as other states tackle the topic, but Arizona is believed to be the first to pass a religious-protection bill this broad.
Its approval comes a week after Republican lawmakers in Kansas introduced legislation that would have exempted individuals from providing any service that is “contrary to their sincerely held religious beliefs … regarding sex or gender.” That bill passed the state’s House chamber on Feb. 11, causing a wave of national backlash. It has since stalled in the Senate and is not expected to advance this year.
Republican lawmakers in South Dakota introduced a bill last month that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve same-sex couples on the basis that “businesses are private and that their views on sexual orientation are protected to the same extent as the views of private citizens.” That bill would have made it illegal for a gay person to file a lawsuit charging discrimination. The bill and a similar one in Tennessee were killed this week.
A ballot initiative in Oregon would allow business owners to refuse to serve same-sex couples “if doing so would violate a person’s deeply held religious beliefs.” It could be voted on this year alongside another initiative that would legalize same-sex marriages.
During nearly three hours of emotional House debate on Arizona’s bill Thursday, Republicans and Democrats disagreed vehemently on what the bill would actually do.
“The result of this bill is discrimination, period. This bill is going to hurt the LGBT community,” said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell.
Bill sponsor Rep. Eddie Farnsworth said the bill has nothing to do with the LGBT community because they it is currently not protected under state discrimination laws.
“A business owner can already decide not to hire somebody who is gay or lesbian. This doesn’t change that,” he said.
The bill is nearly identical to one the Legislature passed last year but Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed. That legislation is not a clear indication of what she’ll do, because according to her veto letter, her decision to reject last year’s bill was due more to a political battle over Medicaid expansion than objection to the legislation.
Brewer has a policy of not commenting on legislation before it reaches her desk.
Contributing: JT Reid of The Republic