PHOENIX (Reuters) — Arizona lawmakers gave
final approval on Thursday to a bill that would allow businesses to
refuse service to customers when such work would violate their religious
beliefs, in a move critics describe as a license to discriminate against
gays and others.
Under the bill, a business owner would have a defense against a
discrimination lawsuit, provided a decision to deny service was
motivated by a "sincerely held" religious belief and that giving
such service would have substantially burdened the exercise of their
"The Arizona legislature sent a clear message today: In our state
everyone is free to live and work according to their faith," said
Cathi Herrod, president of the conservative Center for Arizona
Policy, which helped write the bill.
The bill passed the Republican-controlled state House of
Representatives 33-27 on Thursday, a day after it won similar
approval in the state Senate. It will go to Republican Governor Jan
Brewer, who has not indicated whether she will sign it.
The American Civil Liberties Union branded the legislation as
"unnecessary and discriminatory," saying it had nothing to do with
God or faith.
"What today's bill does is allow private individuals and businesses
to use religion to discriminate, sending a message that Arizona is
intolerant and unwelcoming," said Alessandra Soler, executive
director of the ACLU of Arizona.
The Arizona law is seen by critics as an attack on the rights of
gays and lesbians to equality under the law at a time when same-sex
marriage activists have notched several court victories in recent
Some 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia now recognize gay
marriage in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme
Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide
are eligible for federal benefits.
Since mid-December, federal judges have ruled curbs on same-sex
marriage unconstitutional in Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, although
the decisions have been stayed pending appeal. The New Mexico
Supreme Court has also legalized gay marriage.
But Arizona is among more than 30 states that still ban gay or
lesbian couples from marrying, by constitutional amendment, statute
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, a Democrat who opposed the
measure, called it "state-sanctioned discrimination" that clearly
targets members of the gay community.
"We're telling them, 'We don't like you,'" Campbell said, during a
heated floor debate. "'We don't want you here. We're not going to
protect you, we don't want your business, we don't want your money
and we don't want your kind around here.'"
State Representative Eddie Farnsworth said the bill was wrongly
being portrayed as discriminatory and that it only made "minor
tweaks" to current state law.
"This is simply protecting religious freedom that is recognized and
defended and supported in the First Amendment that the founders
wanted — nothing else," he said.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Clarence Fernandez)