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Divided House overhauls religious freedom bill

(Illustration by Gabe Turner/Arizona Capitol Times and Ryan Cook/RJCook Photography)

The Arizona House of Representatives moved Thursday to temper a divisive bill that sought to wildly expand religious freedom protections and had drawn opposition from civil liberties groups and Democratic lawmakers.

The amended bill advanced by the GOP-led House no longer features its most expansive provisions, including an effort to allow people to sue governments over attacks on religious freedoms, regardless if the government was involved in the claim. The initial measure also stipulated that governments could only limit religious freedom to further an “interest of the highest magnitude.” The amended bill dropped that language.

Arizona law and the U.S. Constitution already protect religious freedom, but proponents of the measure say stricter language is needed. The conservative Center for Arizona Policy advocated for the measure.

“This is really to protect those who are claiming infringement,” said Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert, who sponsored the amendment. He said an example would be a minister who is sued for refusing to marry a gay couple. Gay marriage is not legal in Arizona.

The revamped bill would still expand religious freedom protections by allowing a person whose religious freedom is burdened or likely to be burdened to file a lawsuit and seek relief.

“I’m still concerned,” said Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, before the vote Thursday. “While you may not be encouraging litigation… I think you are opening the door for litigation that is probably unnecessary and burdensome, especially for small businesses.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona had complained that the earlier version of Senate Bill 1178 would have allowed people to break any law by citing religious liberty. The organization also opposes the amended version because it would still apply to potential religious liberty violations, said Anjali Abraham, ACLU Arizona’s public policy director.

“It’s still very broad,” she said. “It’s likely to be very problematic for the business community.”

Republican Rep. Kate Brophy McGee of Phoenix expressed reservations about the amended measure.

“Can I create a religion and then claim infringement?” she asked on the House floor.

Farnsworth answered that the bill does not expand the definition of religion.

“If you can do it now, you can do it under this law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer proclaimed Thursday “Arizona Day of Prayer” and supporters gathered on the lawn of the Capitol complex to pray.

“As Americans, prayer is one of our most unifying and universal traditions,” Brewer said in a statement. “Transcending faith, race, creed and custom, the power of prayer has guided our nation through all of its trials and tribulations. With this proclamation, I am honored to once again honor this fundamental freedom.”

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