PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature gave final approval Thursday evening to legislation that allows business owners asserting their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays, drawing backlash from Democrats who called the proposal "state-sanctioned discrimination" and an embarrassment.
The 33-27 vote by the House sends the legislation to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and puts Arizona back at the forefront of a polarizing piece of legislation four years after the state enacted an immigration crackdown that caused a national furor.
Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona's plan is the only one that has passed. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.
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 and said Arizona needs a law to protect people in the state from heavy-handed actions by courts and law enforcement.
The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any action brought by the government or individual claiming discrimination. It also allows the business or person to seek an injunction once they show their actions are based on a sincere religious belief and the claim places a burden on the exercise of their religion.
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 thought homosexuality was not in accordance with his religion. One lawmaker held up a sign that read "NO GAYS ALLOWED" in arguing what could happen if the law took effect, drawing a rebuke for violating rules that bar signs on the House floor.