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Arizona passes law allowing discrimination

Arizona is the first state to pass a law sanctioning discrimination if motivated by religious belief.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, (D) Phoenix, argues that House Bill 2153 would discriminate against gays and others on the House Floor in Phoenix on Feb. 20, 2014.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, (D) Phoenix, argues that House Bill 2153 would discriminate against gays and others on the House Floor in Phoenix on Feb. 20, 2014.

The Arizona legislature sent a bill to the Gov. Jan Brewer's desk Thursday that would carve a massive hole into state law allowing business owners to turn away gay and lesbian customers, employers to deny equal pay to women, or individuals to renege on contract obligations--as long as they claim to be doing so in the name of religion. 

Brewer, a Republican who vetoed similar legislation last year, has not said whether she will sign the bill. Ann Dockendorff, a spokesperson for the governor's office, said in a statement that "It is the governor's policy to not comment on legislation until she's had a chance to review it. Monday would be the earliest she would take action, assuming it's transmitted by the Senate by then. She'll have five days to act once she receives it."

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“With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation,” Anna Tovar, the state senate Democratic minority leader, said in a statement Wednesday after the bill cleared the state Senate. “This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.”

The Arizona bill is one of several bills across the country aimed at providing legal protection to those who wish to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. As of Friday, however, it's the only one to actually pass, with similar bills in Idaho, Tennessee, and South Dakota being defeated and a bill in Kansas being held up in the state Senate.

RELATED: Kansas lawmakers retreat from religious liberty bill

While the bills vary in scope, Arizona's is among the most broad, expanding that state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act to make it easier for individuals and for-profit businesses to bypass neutral state laws or regulations as long as religion is the reason for doing so.

"A for-profit corporation or business could trample on the rights of others by claiming that a legal requirement is religiously offensive," Tracey Stewart of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League said in a statement in January

Though the bill is aimed at ensuring Arizona businesses are allowed to refuse to serve gays and lesbians, it is written in such a manner that essentially any religiously justified discrimination could be permissible. Arizona does not have laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation

Arizona Republican lawmakers have denied the bill sanctions discrimination, saying the issue is one of religious freedom. As far as the Arizona bill is concerned, it's just different labels for the same thing.

The bill has been championed by the Center for Arizona Policy, one of the state organizations affiliated with the Colorado Springs-based religious right organization Focus On The Family. Calling the bill its "top legislative priority," the Center for Arizona Policy states clearly on its website that "Americans are being told to leave their faith at home when they enter the workforce or start a business," citing a case in New Mexico where a photographer was fined for refusing to take pictures of a same-sex commitment ceremony. 

"The world is upset with how Russia has treated gay rights," Chad Campbell, the Democratic minority leader in the state House tweeted Thursday night. "I think it's time for that same anger to be directed towards AZ."

Correction: A previous version of this post stated Focus on the Family was based in Washington, DC. It is based in Colorado Springs.