Arizona’s Religion-Based Discrimination Bill May Change Little, Or a Lot

Depending on who you ask, the bill is a minor tweak or a major mess.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer waves to cheering supporters in the gallery of the Arizona House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2014, in Phoenix. The Republican governor hasn't said if she will sign into law a bill that would purportedly protect religious freedom.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer waves to cheering supporters in the gallery of the Arizona House of Representatives on Jan. 13, 2014, in Phoenix. The Republican governor hasn't said if she will sign into law a bill that would purportedly protect religious freedom.

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The Arizona state legislature gave final approval Thursday to SB 1062, a bill intended to reaffirm the right of business owners to discriminate against would-be customers if providing service would conflict with their religious beliefs.

The bill does not specifically mention sexual orientation, but the legislation is part of a nationwide push in state legislatures to head off possible lawsuits brought by gay people against businesses that refuse to serve them.

Supporters of the bill say it’s a minor legal update to explicitly give businesspeople a defense against lawsuits for refusing to provide wedding-related or other services that conflict with their beliefs. But opponents say it may actually lead to courtroom chaos anytime someone claims their practice of religion is being hindered.

Sexual minorities are not protected by Arizona's state law banning businesses – including restaurants, banks, stores and health care providers – from discriminating against customers. Only discrimination motivated by race, sex, religion, national origin or disability are outlawed by the state. Therefore, the bill would not significantly expand the authority of business owners to refuse service, according to supporters. “Absolutely not,” says Josh Kredit, legal counsel of the Center for Arizona Policy, a socially conservative group that helped draft the bill.

[READ: Washington State Sues Florist Who Refused Flowers for Gay Couple]

“SB 1062 does not create any new rights or authority for someone to claim religious exercise protections,” Kredit says. “In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and SB 1062 makes minor changes to clarify that Arizona’s law, which has been in place since 1999, is in line with the federal law that has been on the books since 1993.”

The 1993 federal law was sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., while he was still a congressman, to allow the use of psychedelic drugs by American Indians. Ironically, the law – which says the government “shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion” – has also been invoked by social conservatives suing to block the contraception insurance coverage mandate in President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law.

The tweaks to the 1999 state law would expand the ability to defend against discrimination lawsuits – or sue for alleged burdens on religion – by changing the qualifying parties from “a religious assembly or institution” to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.”

The updated law would also expand protection against substantial burdens on religion beyond government actions.

Gov. Jan Brewer, R-Ariz., hasn’t said if she will sign the bill, but supporters of gay rights are feverishly working to discourage her from doing so.

[ALSO: Anti-Gay Stigma Shortens Lives, Study Finds]

Alessandra Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, says if the bill becomes law it might override a handful of local nondiscrimination ordinances and prevent attempts to use federal law to win discrimination cases for gay residents.

It would also cause a wide range of legal headaches, she says.

“It allows private individuals to use religion against other private individuals and businesses – this is what will become a nightmare for employers and businesses throughout the state,” Meetze says, noting the wording changes may allow workers to nullify their employers’ nondiscrimination policies by suing over alleged burdens on their exercise of religion.

A nurse fired for refusing to provide health care to gay patients or a waiter terminated for not taking certain customers’ orders would be allowed to take their former employers to court, she says.

“It kind of sends this message to the rest of the world that Arizona is intolerant,” Meetze adds. “We went from vilifying Latinos four years ago after passing SB 1070 to attacking the gay and lesbian community. It sends the message that individuals and businesses can use religion to discriminate.”

Meetze sees the bill as particularly unnecessary because a 2012 law denied the state government the right to yank the professional or occupational license, certificate or registration of people denying clients service based on religious beliefs, including counselors and others with sensitive jobs. 

The Arizona ACLU is unlikely to immediately file a lawsuit if the bill is signed into law, but may do so in the future.