The Arizona House approved Thursday legislation that proponents say would expand religious freedom in the state, but opponents of the measure say the law would open the door to widespread discrimination — particularly against the LGBT community.
After hours of, at times, heated debate, House lawmakers voted 33–27 to approve Senate Bill 1026 — which was passed in the state Senate on Wednesday — sending the legislation to the desk of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. A House committee approved an identical bill, House Bill 2153, earlier in the afternoon and swapped it for the Senate version for final consideration.
The law would protect individuals and businesses who are sued if they refuse services to anyone if doing so would violate their religious beliefs. The bill's sponsors and other supporters say people and businesses should be able to refuse to do business with anyone if it goes against their religious beliefs.
The measure comes as a direct response to instances where people in other states were "punished for their religious beliefs," said Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, such as a New Mexico photographer who refused to photograph a same-sex couple for their wedding due to religious beliefs -- even though Arizona's public accommodation law does not include sexual orientation protections, which formed the basis for the New Mexico lawsuit.
"The opposition has a hard time understanding what we are trying to do here," said Rep. Steve Montenegro, another Republican who voted for the bill. "Let me repeat it, we are trying to protect peoples' religious rights."
Critics, however, say the bill will lead to rampant discrimination, specifically against people in the state's LGBT community. Opponents said scenarios in which LGBT people are denied service at restaurants because of the owner's religious beliefs, for example, would be possible under the law.
Democratic opponents in the chamber mounted an extensive attack on the bill during the debate, introducing several amendments that would change portions of its language -- all of them failing.
"We are heading down a very dangerous road," said Minority Leader Chad Campbell during the debate. "The bottom line is that this bill is going to discriminate against a certain class of people -- that is going to be the end result of this bill."
Campbell made several spirited speeches in opposition to the bill, saying it will undermine ordinances in Arizona cities that protect LGBT people as a protected class against discrimination, but the exact effect the law will have in that regard remains unclear at this time, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
"This is state-sanctioned discrimination towards the LGBT community," Campbell added. "There is no doubt in my mind about that. None."
Annie Dockendorff, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jan Brewer, would not say if Brewer would sign the legislation into law, telling BuzzFeed, "Governor Brewer typically does not comment on proposed legislation she has not seen. She will take a position once it reaches her desk in final form."
She has five days to sign the bill.
Arizona is one of several states where such legislation has been proposed, but just this week, similar bills -- varying in language and scope -- were defeated, blocked, or withdrawn in Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, South Dakota, and on Thursday, Maine.