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Religious freedom bill moves forward in Senate

religion-620An Arizona Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that opponents argue would invite discrimination based on religious beliefs.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough’s SB 1062 would expand the definition of a person in Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act – a law that protects the right to exercise one’s religious beliefs – to include corporations, churches, foundations or any business.

The Senate’s Government and Environment Committee advanced the bill on party lines – four Republicans voted in favor, while the two Democrats present for the committee voted against it.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, was absent from the hearing.

Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said the legislation is a proactive response to a 2013 decision by New Mexico’s Supreme Court, which ruled that a business that declined to take wedding photos of a same-sex couple’s commitment ceremony violated the couple’s rights.

The photographer, Elaine Hugenin, cited her religious beliefs in explaining why she declined to provide service to the couple.

“It was held that [New Mexico’s] version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not available as a defense because the government was not a party (to the suit),” Yarbrough testified before the Senate Government and Environment Committee.

SB 1062, “a modest clarification” of Arizona’s own act – which Yarbrough said closely resembles the New Mexico law – “just says that the longstanding Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to any state action regardless of whether the government is a party… prohibited discrimination remains prohibited.”

The bill has the backing of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which argued that Democrats’ concerns of unintended litigation were unfounded.

“In America people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and this makes small and minor changes to ensure that’s the case,” said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for CAP.

But Yarbrough’s bill missed a crucial factor in the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision, according to Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona.  The court’s decision cited the state’s Human Rights Act, which prevents discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Arizona’s LGBT community is not afforded the same protection as New Mexico residents, and approving Yarbrough’s legislation would invite businesses to discriminate by denying services, Winenger said.

“Freedom means freedom for everyone,” Winenger testified. “It’s wrong to treat people differently because of who they are.”

Yarbrough and others who testified in favor of the legislation assured the committee that there have been no problems with Arizona’s religious freedom laws as currently written, and that the change would not invite future litigation.

And if a problem were to arise if people cited religious beliefs as a reason for denying services, in many cases they’d have trouble hiding behind Yarbrough’s bill, said Joe La Rue, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“If my religion hypothetically required me to offer child sacrifices, I would not be able to assert a RFRA defense successfully because the government has a compelling interest in preventing me from murdering children,” LaRue testified. “[SB 1062] strikes the proper balance between allowing the government to do what it needs to do and guaranteeing the freedom of all Arizona citizens to exercise their religion and their faith as they see fit.”

Democrats remained skeptical that Yarbrough’s bill was necessary given that those testifying in favor of the legislation acknowledged there have been no problems with the freedom of religion law since it was passed in 1999.

Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said Yarbrough was seeking to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.

And in doing so, Yarbrough would simply create a host of new problems that would require a legal battle to solve, said Sen. Carlyle Begay, D-Ganado.

“In the end, this will only create a legal and bureaucratic nightmare in our state,” Begay said.

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