State Rep. John Kavanagh [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services

Gov. Jan Brewer is going to get the last word on whether Arizona business owners can cite their religion as a reason to turn away gays – and maybe others.

On a largely party-line vote, the state House late Thursday gave final approval to legislation to give a legal shield to individuals and businesses who face claims of discrimination. In essence, it says that a “sincerely held religious belief” can immunize that person or firm against lawsuits.

The Senate already has approved SB 1062.

Brewer has generally sided with groups like the Center for Arizona Policy which supports the legislation on the grounds it keeps people from having to act against their own religious beliefs. But foes hope to convince business groups, which have so far stayed out of the fray, to convince the governor that having Arizona be the first – and potentially only – state to adopt this law is bad for attracting business.

Gubernatorial press aide Andrew Wilder would not comment, saying only that his boss would review it when she returns from Washington where she is attending the conference of the National Governors Association.

Only three Republicans joined the 24 Democrats in opposition: Ethan Orr from Tucson, Kate Brophy McGee from Phoenix and Heather Carter from Cave Creek.

Several hours of debate showed a sharp division remains into exactly what the measure would do.

Existing stand and federal law already says people can use their religious beliefs to avoid government regulations if they can show those rules or laws substantially burden the ability to exercise those beliefs. It also says those religious beliefs do not trump regulations where there is a “compelling government interest” and where those rules are the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

Proponents contend SB 1062 just extends those same rights in situations where the government is not involved, such as what happened in New Mexico where a gay couple successfully sued a photographer for refusing to take pictures at their wedding.

“This is state-sanctioned discrimination,” said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell. And Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said the legislation will create an “open season” to discriminate.

But Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, called those claims a “distortion.”

“What this bill is simply trying to bring forward is that you should not have to forfeit your religious freedoms and rights merely because you want to work or start a business in the state of Arizona,” he said.

How far someone could push that claim of religious protection, however, remained unclear.

Democrats suggested it would allow someone to claim that his religion does not believe in equal rights for women, but Republicans said there already are laws on the books preventing discrimination in public services and accommodations on account of gender or even race.

That, then, may reduce the issue to one of gay rights. Campbell got Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, to acknowledge that, under this law, someone could cite religious reasons for refusing to serve or even employ gays.

But Farnsworth said Campbell is making too much of that.

“A business owner already can decide not to hire someone who is gay or lesbian,” he said.

That's because neither Arizona nor federal law provides anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, and he said nothing in SB 1062 changes or expands on that.

But Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, said that ignores the fact that many cities, including his own, have anti-discrimination ordinances. He worried that this legislation would allow business owners to ignore those rules and preclude individuals who have been victimized from filing suit.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, lashed out at laws that prohibit discrimination against gays. He called such measure “ironic” given that the country was founded by those fleeing religious persecution themselves, saying that the descendents of those people are now being prosecuted and sued for exercising their own religious freedoms.

“All this bill does is protect the religious freedom that the people who began this country came here to establish,” Kavanagh said.

But Rep. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, found her own bit of irony in Kavanagh's comments.

She said the Pilgrims were fleeing religious oppression. “But when they came here, ironically, what they did is they subjugated and oppressed and murdered hundreds of millions of people in the name of their religion,” she said.

Before approving the measure, the majority rejected a series of amendments proposed by Rep. Mark Cardenas, D-Phoenix, to limit its scope. These included carve-outs to bar use of a religious defense in cases of higher education, renting and taxi transportation.

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