By Alia Beard Rau
The Republic | azcentral.com
Wed May 15, 2013
Supporters of a bill that would change the state’s religious-protection law say it would strengthen Arizonans’ ability to defend their “practice or observance of religion.”
But critics of the legislation, particularly in the gay and transgender community, say it’s so broadly worded that it could have dangerous implications, particularly in providing a legal defense for those who ignore state law or city ordinances meant to protect groups such as same-sex couples and transgender individuals from discrimination.
The Arizona House on Wednesday passed Senate Bill 1178 in a 32-24 vote, with most Republicans supporting it and all Democrats opposing it. The bill still needs final Senate approval before going to the governor. The Senate has not yet scheduled a vote.
The conservative advocacy group Center for Arizona Policy authored the bill. Its attorney says the bill does not expand the definition of exercise of religion in a way that adds new protections. Rather, the group contends it clarifies an individual’s right to make a legal argument by allowing him or her to claim in lawsuits that a state action is a burden on a religious exercise, even when the government is not a party.
“It is shocking the claims that have been made about what this bill does,” said Josh Kredit, legislative counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy. “We just want to clarify the state law.”
Kredit said the bill is aimed at preventing problems like those encountered by a New Mexico photographer who was found guilty of violating that state’s anti-discrimination law after refusing to take photos of a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony.
With SB 1178, he said, an Arizona photographer in such a situation would have a legal defense if same-sex marriages or civil unions were ever allowed in the state. He said several states are adjusting their religious-protection laws based on this concern.
In a House debate, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, used a similar example of a pastor who may refuse to marry a same-sex couple. “If we decide we have a state that decides you can have same-sex couple marriages and somebody decides not to do it and they get sued, that’s what this can protect against,” Farnsworth said.
But opponents say the bill could protect people who discriminate.
“It’s giving business owners sort of the go-ahead to choose not to provide services for the LGBT community,” said Seráh Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona.
Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, opposed the bill. He said during the House debate that small businesses could face the brunt of additional litigation if individuals use SB 1178 to sue them for following a state law someone believes conflicts with their religion. “Litigation could now be directed at the private sector even though the private sector is acting in good faith with a law they should be following,” he said.
Blain said part of her opposition stems from how the bill has moved through the legislative process. Farnsworth and Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, introduced it as an amendment to an unrelated bill in the House after the bill had already passed its assigned Senate committee, meaning it only got one public hearing instead of the usual two.
“It really didn’t have a vetting process where stakeholders were able to look at what this might do,” Blain said.
And there are still a lot of questions about what the bill could do, she said.
The organization’s website offers examples of doctors refusing to prescribe medically necessary medications and therapists suggesting patients try religious worship instead of other treatments. Others have said they fear it could be a tactic to fight a controversial new Phoenix ordinance that bans discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents.
Opponents of the ordinance, including the Center for Arizona Policy, have alleged it could lead to individuals using gender identity as a “ruse” to gain access to opposite-sex bathrooms and requiring businesses to let it happen.
“My organization is particularly concerned about any kind of legislation that allows the religious beliefs of people in power to marginalize vulnerable groups of people,” Blain said. “We are concerned about the transgender community, LGBT individuals, women, anyone who is vulnerable to discrimination.”
She said she believes it gives business owners the go-ahead to ignore laws and rules requiring equal services for minorities. “This seems very akin to the ways in which states tried to avoid desegregation,” she said.