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Arizona bill would allow banning service to gays

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 8:27 p.m.

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature gave final approval on Thursday to legislation that would allow business owners asserting their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays and others.

The proposal drew backlash from Democrats, who called it “state-sanctioned discrimination” and an embarrassment.

The House 33-27 vote sends the legislation to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and puts Arizona back at the forefront of a polarizing piece of legislation — four years after it enacted an immigration crackdown, causing a national furor.

Similar religion-protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona's plan is the only one that has cleared a legislature.

Republicans stressed that the bill is about protecting religious freedom and not discrimination. They frequently cited the case of a New Mexico photographer, who was sued after refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple.

Legislators said Arizona needs a law to protect residents from heavy-handed actions by courts and law enforcement.

The legislation prompted a heated debate on the floor of the House, touching on issues such as the religious freedom, constitutional protections and civil rights.

Opponents raised scenarios in which gay people in Arizona could be denied service at a restaurant or refused medical treatment if a business owner believes homosexuality isn't in accordance with his or her religion. One lawmaker held up a sign that read “NO GAYS ALLOWED” in arguing what could happen if the law took effect.

The bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal is necessary to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply clarifies existing state law.

“We see a growing hostility toward religion,” said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group.

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.

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