Phoenix, Arizona — Lawmakers in the Arizona House of Representatives passed a bill this week that seeks to expand protections for the free exercise of religion, sending the legislation now to the Senate for a vote.
Votes for and against SB 1178 were generally along party lines, with a final outcome of 32 to 24. The bill, among other goals, aims to uphold the practice of one’s religion, as opposed to limiting religion to a personal belief that must be separated from its practice.
“‘Exercise of religion’ means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief,” it outlines.
“Free exercise of religion is a fundamental right that applies in this state even if laws, rules or other government actions are facially neutral,” the bill continues. “Except as provided in subsection C, government state action shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.”
Exceptions include the existence of a compelling government interest, but the interest must be carried out in the least restrictive means possible.
“This is really to protect those who are claiming infringement,” said Republican Representative Eddie Farnsworth, who sponsored the bill. While homosexual “marriage” is not legal in Arizona, he gave the example that a church could not be sued or otherwise punished for declining to facilitate a ceremony.
However, a number of Democratic Representatives opposed the measure, stating that it could be harmful to businesses, since it provides that “[a] person whose religious exercise is burdened or is likely to be burdened in violation of this section may assert that violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding.”
“I’m still concerned,” Representative Chad Campbell stated. “While you may not be encouraging litigation … I think you are opening the door for litigation that is probably unnecessary and burdensome, especially for small businesses.”
Some Republicans also opposed the legislation, opining that it may make the right to sue too broad.
“Can I create a religion and then claim infringement?” asked Representative Kate Brophy McGee.
The Center for Arizona Policy, however, believes that the bill is vital in protecting people of faith from being forced to violate their convictions.
“Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been on the books since 1999 and has not been updated during that time,” it outlined. “In light of increasing threats to religious liberty at all levels of government, the strike-everything amendment to SB 1178 makes important clarifications and updates to ensure religious liberty is protected to the maximum extent possible in our state.”
“SB 1178 is necessary to … close loopholes that might jeopardize a person’s free exercise of religion in Arizona,” the organization continued. “[I]n recent years, America and Arizona specifically have witnessed organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation attempt to undermine our nation’s first freedom, religious liberty. In order to better protect against the frivolous lawsuits brought by this out-of-state organization, it is essential that Arizona strengthen the state RFRA.”