PHOENIX – Republicans lawmakers in Arizona want to give business owners the right to refuse service to gay patrons if doing so goes against their religious beliefs.
A bill providing such protections was on the brink of passing the GOP-dominated Arizona House on Thursday, a day after a similar measure cleared the Senate.
Democrats mounted a spirited defense, but don't have the votes to stop what they call a proposal that allows "state-sanctioned discrimination."
If House lawmakers advance the bill as expected, legislation could be headed toward Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's desk by the end of the day.
Brewer doesn't comment on pending legislation, but she vetoed a similar measure last year. That action, however, came during an unrelated political standoff, and it's not clear whether she would support or reject this plan.
Should it become law, the legislation would allow individuals and businesses accused of discrimination to claim religious freedom as a defense. Supporters cite a New Mexico Supreme Court decision allowing a gay couple to sue a photographer who refused to document their wedding as proof the protection is needed.
The bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal is needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply clarifies existing state law.
"We see a growing hostility toward religion," said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group.
Similar legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona's plan is the only one that is close to passing.
The legislation comes also as an increasing number of conservative states grapple with ways to counter the increasing legality of gay marriage.
Arizona's voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. It's one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal judges have recently struck down bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.
Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough called his proposal a First Amendment issue during the Senate debate.
"This bill is not about allowing discrimination," Yarbrough said. "This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith."
Democrats say it is an outright attack on the rights of gays and lesbians.
"The heart of this bill would allow for discrimination versus gays and lesbians," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "You can't argue the fact that bill will invite discrimination. That's the point of this bill. It is."
The bill is similar to a proposal last year brought by Yarbrough but vetoed by Brewer. That legislation also would have allowed people or religious groups to sue if they believed they might be subject to a government regulation that infringed on their religious rights. Yarbrough stripped a provision from the bill in hopes Brewer will embrace the new version.
Civil liberties and secular groups countered that Yarbrough and the Center for Arizona Policy had sought to minimize concerns that last year's bill had far-reaching and hidden implications. During the Senate debate Wednesday, Democrats said the bill could allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense.
Yarbrough called those worries "unrealistic and unsupported hypotheticals" and said criminal laws will continue to be prosecuted by the courts.
Rep. Chad Campbell of Phoenix, the Democratic minority leader, said during debate that gays and lesbians across the country would get the message that they're not welcome in Arizona.
"We're telling them, `We don't like you. We don't want you here. We're not going to protect you," he said.
Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said the Democrats' rhetoric was misplaced.
"Sometimes people's rhetoric tends to inflame instead of explain," Biggs said. "And I would suggest if there is going to be a backlash because of 1062 ... it will because of the intemperate and inaccurate rhetoric."