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Critics cite unintended consequences of religious protection bill

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, (left) introduced a bill barring various forms of religious discrimination after Louis Araneta (right), then a member of the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, cited a concern about a potential member of the Independent Redistricting Commission who had been on a religious mission. (Photos by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, (left) introduced a bill barring various forms of religious discrimination after Louis Araneta (right), then a member of the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments, cited a concern about a potential member of the Independent Redistricting Commission who had been on a religious mission. (Photos by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Leeches, witchcraft and self-help gurus.

Those were mentioned in some of the scenarios that critics tossed out when debating a bill guaranteeing that licensed professionals would be protected from religious discrimination.

Chandler Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough’s SB1288, which was introduced as a backlash after Louis Araneta was accused of religious discrimination against an Independent Redistricting Commission applicant, may have some unintended consequences, critics said.

The measure was approved in a committee of the whole session March 24 and is ready for a formal vote.

During debate in the House, Democrats tossed out a number of potential scenarios that may arise under the bill, which would prohibit the state from suspending, denying or revoking any sort of professional license based on the person’s religious beliefs or their refusal to say or do something that would violate those beliefs.

Democrats said the bill was too broad, and asked, what about people who practice witchcraft? Or leech therapy?

The questions were directed to Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, because SB1288 was earlier approved by the committee he chairs. He admitted that he could not answer many of the questions.

But the lack of answers helped demonstrate House Minority Leader Chad Campbell’s point.

“The language in this bill is just too vague,” he said. “It’s obvious to me that this is going to have some unintended consequences.”

So far, the bill’s supporters have scoffed at the concerns.

But the objections were enough to make at least one Republican decide to do some more research about the bill.

Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said the concerns being thrown out made her wonder.

“I’m going to have to look at it more closely,” she said, though she added she didn’t know yet whether it would be enough to make her vote against the bill.

The bill is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a group that lobbies for legislation that upholds Christian principles. Deborah Sheasby, an attorney for the group who has been working with Yarbrough on the bill, said this is one of the bills the center has been working hardest on this session.

It’s just a clarification of the First Amendment rights already awarded under the U.S. Constitution — ones that apparently need that clarification and reinforcement, she said, given two recent situations in Arizona.

In 2008, the State Bar of Arizona considered adding sexual orientation to an anti-discrimination oath that attorneys must take. The move essentially would have required all attorneys to vow that they won’t allow the fact that a client is a homosexual to affect their duty to the client.

Critics blanched, arguing the language could require them to accept a case that went against their religious beliefs if they had to defend a lifestyle to which they had a religious objection.

Eventually, then-State Bar President Ed Novak backed down.

The second situation is more recent. In December, the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments was evaluating applicants for the Independent Redistricting Commission. Former Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Louis Araneta, then a member of the panel, said during the public discussion that he was concerned about the mention of a religious mission on Christopher Gleason’s application.

“There should be a separation between church and state,” Araneta told other members.

The commission ultimately rejected Gleason, prompting outrage from some Republican legislators and groups like the Center for Arizona Policy, who claimed Gleason didn’t make the final cut because of religious discrimination.

“We know there have been cases where people who want to practice are being prevented from doing so because of their faith,” Yarbrough said.

Sheasby said there were several other such incidents across the country that illustrated the need for SB1288 in Arizona. She said she could only think of one licensing example off the top of her head: Don Mendell, a social worker in Maine who, in 2009, appeared in a television ad supporting a ballot provision that would secure the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Though the board voted to dismiss the complaints, Sheasby said it was an example of ways that a person’s license could be put in jeopardy because he ro she is acting in accordance with their religious beliefs.

“Religious freedom doesn’t mean anything if you can’t live it out, if you can’t practice your faith,” she said.

But critics like Campbell argue that, in some cases, a person’s religious beliefs could be dangerous, considering a person’s profession.

Campbell and Assistant Minority Leader Steve Farley, D-Tucson, discussed on the floor the possibility that the bill could protect someone like James Arthur Ray, the self-help guru who led a sweat lodge ceremony outside of Sedona in 2009 in which three participants died.

If someone with a professional medical license did something similar and claimed the ceremony was an expression of his religious beliefs, they argued that SB1288 would allow him to keep his medical license.

But Sheasby said that wasn’t the case, since the bill does not extend to criminal conduct.

Additionally, she said the hypothetical “leeches and witchcraft” scenarios were “red herrings,” since the bill doesn’t protect from any additional disciplinary action.

“If you’re working at a hospital, and you say you want to treat someone with leeches, the hospital can still say ‘Whoa, what are you doing?’ and fire you,” she said. “If someone was really trying to do something crazy, and the hospital was to discipline them, this bill would not protect them.”

Yarbrough also scoffed at the allegations.

“That strikes me as an extremely unlikely circumstance,” he said. “I don’t think it really represents a legitimate concern with the bill.”

If, in fact, there turned out to be cases in which people are getting away with malpractice because of they claimed their actions were influenced by their religion, Yarbrough said he would be the first to suggest tightening the language.

But, in the meantime, he and Sheasby both said the language is broad because the First Amendment is similarly broad.

“The First Amendment is a pesky thing,” Yarbrough said. “We don’t always like what the press says, or with whom someone associates, but that’s their right.”

In the meantime, it’s unclear whether the direction of the COW debate will have any significant impact when it comes to a vote.

Robson, who voted for the bill on March 15 in his Employment and Regulatory Affairs Committee, said the questions didn’t sway his opinion of the bill, nor does he expect they did for anyone else.

“Those are generally generic questions that are asked relative to these sorts of bills all the time,” he said. “I’d never say they are illegitimate, but it’s a regular line of questioning when questions of religious freedom arise.”

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