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Controversial religion bill sent to Brewer

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Posted: Monday, February 24, 2014 4:25 pm

The state Senate sent Gov. Jan Brewer controversial legislation billed as protecting religious freedom on Monday even as two more senators who voted last week for SB 1062 now say that was a mistake.

Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, said he still believes the state should try to protect people from being forced to do things in conflict with their faith. Driggs told Capitol Media Services he believes foes of the bill have conflated it into something it is not. The result, he said, is bad publicity – and possible economic development fallout – the state does not need.

Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said his change of heart is simpler. He said that, on reflection, SB 1062 deals with “an imagined problem” that does not really exist.

Their opposition, coupled with the previously announced change of heart by Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, now reduces the number of senators in favor of the plan to 14, two short of the 16 needed for approval of the measure. But it also comes too late: Senate President Andy Biggs, a supporter, sent the bill to Brewer as soon as he could.

That leaves it to Brewer, due back in the office today, to make the final decision, and the odds of a veto are increasing as other individuals and groups pile on in asking her to put the issue to rest.

On the business front, the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce joined in urging a veto.

“There seems to be little doubt that this measure is regarded as regressive and serves only to define the state of Arizona in a negative light,” wrote Michael Varney, the organization's president.

U.S. Sen. John McCain also jumped on board seeking a veto; Jeff Flake had done so Sunday.

The measure provides a defense in civil lawsuits for individuals and businesses who refuse to do things that interfere with their ability to practice a “sincerely held” religious belief. That defense is not absolute: The measure says such refusal is impermissible if there is a compelling governmental interest in the service being provided and that any regulations to ensure that are the least restrictive means possible of achieving that interest.

Foes said the law, the first of its kind in the nation, would provide state permission to discriminate, particularly against gays and lesbians. But supporters said that's already the case, pointing out state and federal civil rights laws offer no special protections based on sexual orientation.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who crafted the measure, said the whole reason SB 1062 has become a national issue is because Democrats distorted the purpose and effect of the legislation to say it will lead to discrimination against gays and others in the name of religious freedom.

“They manufactured this whole process,” he said.

“They said lots of things that were terribly inaccurate about the bill,” Yarbrough continued. “But it sold. I'll give them credit for that.”

The lone notable exception to the rising tide of calls on Brewer to veto the bill was state senator and gubernatorial hopeful Al Melvin.

The Tucson Republican, in a statement to supporters, acknowledged that puts him at odds with all the other Republican candidates for governor. But he said they were wrong.

“They need to look past the media-driven hysteria and look at the bill itself,” he said.

Driggs, who voted for the bill, said he agrees with the goal of protecting religious freedom, but he said the fallout is hurting the state.

“As a state senator, who loves my state and wants to protect my state, I do a cost-benefit analysis,” Driggs explained. “And the cost-benefit analysis says it is more important to protect the reputation of the state of Arizona and to end this debate with the governor's veto rather than pursue it.”

Worsley told Capitol Media Services he did some additional analysis on the issue after last week's vote and concluded what's in SB 1062 is unnecessary because of existing religious freedom laws.

“It really didn't accomplish a lot more beyond that except cause a lot of controversy,'' he said. “Let's get back out of the news and solve problems that really need to be solved, versus these imagined problems.”

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