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Arizona bill letting businesses deny service for religious reasons sparks heated debate

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is facing pressure from both sides of a heated debate over religious rights, as she weighs whether to sign a bill that would legally protect businesses that deny services to customers for religious reasons. 

The bill cleared the Arizona Legislature last week. Opponents are calling the measure “state-sanctioned discrimination” and raising such scenarios as gays being denied restaurant service or medical treatment when a business owner’s religion doesn’t condone homosexuality.

The bill updates existing Arizona law on the “exercise of religion” and protects businesses, corporations and people from lawsuits if they deny services based on a “sincere” religious belief.

Supporters argue the bill is about protecting religious freedom, not about allowing discrimination. And they frequently cite the case of a New Mexico photographer sued for refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple.

"This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith,” said state GOP Sen. Steve Yarbrough, the bill sponsor. 

Brewer, a Republican, has five days to sign or veto the bill once it gets to her desk but has yet to clearly indicate what she will do. Brewer suggested over the weekend that she supports a business's freedom of choice but remains unsure whether that has to be put into state law. She vetoed a similar bill proposed last year by Yarbrough. 

Despite some support in the state Legislature, prominent Republicans have pressed the GOP governor for a veto, including Sen. John McCain. Five of seven Republican candidates for governor also have called for the bill to be vetoed or withdrawn. The latest is Frank Riggs, a former California congressman, who said it is a "solution in search of a problem." 

According to the new bill, "A person whose religious exercise is burdened … may assert that violation as a claim or a defense in a judicial proceeding.”

In addition to the New Mexico case, a gay couple in Arizona was recently denied service over religious beliefs when the owner of a small bakery declined to bake the couple a wedding cake. “I respectfully declined due to my personal Biblical convictions as a born-again Christian,” the owner told an Arizona TV station. “I firmly believe that my convictions in the Bible are more important than money.”

Similar legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma. But Arizona's plan is the only one that has passed. 

Supporters of the Arizona legislation also say it is needed to protect people 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 an individual. 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.

Three state House Republicans opposed the bill but have not elaborated on their vote.

"I disagree with the bill," said GOP state Rep. Ethan Orr. "I think it's a bad bill."

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.