PHOENIX — Lawmakers in Arizona passed a bill this week that seeks to protect the religious rights of business owners and shield them from unlawful discrimination lawsuits.
HB 2153 cleared the Arizona House of Representatives on Thursday 33-27, amending sections 41‑1493 and 41‑1493.01 of the state code pertaining to the free exercise of religion. The bill broadens the definition of a religious entity to include businesses and associations, and prohibits state officials from burdening the entity’s free exercise of religion without the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.
The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in the 1990’s, but serves to ensure that Arizona protects the right to religious conviction without punishment. The RFRA only applies on a federal level and does not pertain to state action.
While the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU) and other groups have condemned the legislation as paving the way for unlawful discrimination against minorities, sponsor Steve Yarbrough (R-Chandler) said that the measure conversely protects religious business owners against bigotry.
“This bill is not about allowing discrimination,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.”
Yarbrough’s version of the bill passed the Senate 17-13 before moving on to the House of Representatives the following day.
“As we witness hostility towards people of faith grow like never before, we must take this opportunity to speak up for religious liberty,” said the Center for Arizona Policy. “The great news is that [this bill] protects your right to live and work according to your faith.”
As previously reported, concerns have been mounting over the past year after lawsuits and civil discrimination complaints have been filed against religious business owners who have declined certain orders due to their Christian convictions. The majority of the cases have centered around the issue of homosexual “marriage.”
While none of the business owners have denied service to homosexuals in general, all have stated that certain jobs would equate to personal participation in the ceremony or celebration—which would violate their conscience. Florists, bakers and bed and breakfast owners nationwide have faced discrimination charges for declining the orders, and one photographer from New Mexico is currently appealing her case to the U.S. Supreme Court after being told that she must “compromise” her beliefs to facilitate requests to shoot homosexual ceremonies.
In addition to protecting business owners’ views on marriage, the Center for Arizona Policy noted that the bill could also protect businesses that have fought for their religious rights to conscience surrounding Obamacare. Many businesses have declined to provide insurance coverage for abortifacient drugs due to their Christian beliefs.
“People don’t forfeit their religious freedom rights simply because they go to work or start a business,” the organization stated. “The Constitution doesn’t only guarantee our freedom to worship but our freedom to practice and promote our faith. Americans don’t have to leave their faith and convictions at their church door; we have the right to carry it with us in all aspects of our lives.”
The bill is now headed to the desk of Governor Jan Brewer, who is likely to sign the legislation into law.