Activists in uproar over Arizona bill

Measure could allow businesses to cite their religion, turn gays away

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Say a gay couple in Phoenix walks into a bakery to order their wedding cake. The baker refuses to take their order because of his deeply held religious beliefs. Under a bill the Arizona Legislature passed this week, the baker could invoke religion to shield himself from a discrimination lawsuit.

The bill, approved by the Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday and the GOP-led House on Thursday, would bolster a business owner's right to refuse service to gays and others if the owner believes doing so violates the practice and observance of his or her religion.

GOP Gov. Jan Brewer's office said she would not take a position until she'd had a chance to review the measure.

But opponents, including Democratic lawmakers and gay activist groups, describe the bill as unconstitutional, discriminatory and divisive.

It would "permit discrimination under the guise of religious freedom," said Sen. Ana Tovar, a Democratic leader.

Democrat Chad Campbell of Phoenix, the House minority leader, tweeted after the bill passed: "The world is upset with how Russia has treated gay rights. … I think it's time for that same anger to be directed towards AZ."

Arizona's legislation is similar to proposals in other states, including ones that failed in Kansas and Idaho. Another is under consideration in Utah.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, is confident that courts would strike down the measure if it became law.

"The Arizona Senate bill is blatantly unconstitutional," Minter said. "It violates the requirement of equal protection of the laws by openly singling out a particular group of people and saying it's OK to discriminate against them."

Tovar said such a law could elicit boycotts.

"With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation," Tovar said. "This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability."

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, who introduced the measure accused the opposition of distorting his bill.

"The religious beliefs of all Arizonans must be respected, and this bill does nothing more than affirm that," Yarbrough said. "Those that oppose this bill oppose our diverse society and do not have tolerance for their fellow neighbors with deeply held religious beliefs."

Businesses are people, too

Technically, the bill expands the definition of the free exercise of religion, allowing a faithful "person" to adhere to his or her beliefs in practice. It also expands the definition of "person" to include entities such as businesses, associations and corporations.

Yarbrough disagreed that the bill would legitimize discrimination. "The protections in law today against discrimination will still be in place and enforced if SB 1062 becomes law, and SB 1062 does nothing to change that," he said.