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Arizona governor vetoes contentious ‘religious freedom’ bill

AP

Arizona’s governor on Wednesday vetoed a Republican bill that set off a national debate over gay rights, religion and discrimination.

The bill, backed by Republicans in Arizona’s Legislature, was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.

Brewer’s decision defused a national furor over the issue. Prominent Phoenix business groups, companies from Apple Inc. and American Airlines and even national Republicans including Sen. John McCain had urged her to veto the bill, saying it would be a black eye for the state and could alienate businesses looking to expand in Arizona.

Loud cheers erupted outside the Capitol building immediately after Brewer made her announcement.

The governor said she gave the legislation careful deliberation in talking to her lawyers, citizens and lawmakers on both sides of the debate.

Brewer said the bill “could divide Arizona in ways we could not even imagine and no one would ever want.” The bill was broadly worded and could result in unintended negative consequences, she added.

America’s deep polarization over gay rights was on stark display this week.

Hours before Brewer announced her decision, a federal judge struck down the same-sex marriage ban in Texas. Similar ruling have been made in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, leaving conservatives grappling with how to respond to the growing legality of gay marriage.

“This ruling is the poster child of the culture war occurring in America today,” said Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor who drafted the Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

Bills similar to the one Brewer vetoed are making their way through several state legislatures. Some are intended to protect gay-marriage bans, others to protect individuals or businesses who, for religious reasons, don’t want to serve same-sex couples.

Arizona’s legislation would have allowed people to claim their religious beliefs as a defense against claims of discrimination. Backers cite a New Mexico Supreme Court decision that allowed a gay couple to sue a photographer who refused to document their wedding, even though the law that allowed that suit doesn’t exist in Arizona.

Polls show the legal decisions come amid growing public support for gay marriage. At least 17 states, mostly in the Northeast, and the Washington capital district now allow marriage of same-sex couples.

But there has been a backlash among conservatives who say “activist” judges are overturning the will of citizens who have voted to ban same-sex marriage.

“Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our Constitution, and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

U.S. Judge Orlando Garcia declared the gay marriage ban in Texas unconstitutional but said he would not enforce his ruling pending a decision by a court of appeals.

Arizona’s bill thrust the state into the national spotlight last week after both chambers of the state legislature approved it. As the days passed, more and more groups, politicians and average citizens weighed in against it. Many took to social media to criticize the bill, calling it an attack on gay and lesbian rights.

Three Republicans who had voted for the bill last week changed course and urged Brewer to veto it. They said in a letter to Brewer that while the intent of their vote “was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has been misconstrued by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance.”

Democrats said it was a veiled attempt to legally discriminate against gay people and could allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense.

The Center for Arizona Policy, a powerful social conservative group that backs conservative Christian legislation and is opposed to gay marriage, argues the law 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 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 been passed by a state legislature. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.

Arizona’s voters approved a ban on gay marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. A lawsuit challenging the ban is still in its early stages.

Arizona is one of 29 states with such constitutional prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.