Rejecting claims it will lead to discrimination, a House panel voted 5-2 Tuesday to give individuals and the businesses they own more rights to refuse to provide services based on their religious beliefs.

The vote by the Government Committee came despite comments from several individuals that the measure would allow anyone to claim a “sincerely held” religious belief as an defense in discrimination lawsuits.

“This bill allows anyone who should normally comply with state or local laws that are neutral to claim that those laws burden their religious beliefs,” said Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix.

But Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, sponsor of HB 2153, said it protects business owners from being forced to do anything that would violate their faith, and Farnsworth lashed out at foes of the legislation for being intolerant of the religious views of others.

“This is pretty remarkable and ironic the screaming and yelling about tolerance apparently flows only one way,” he said. “They want the (religious) tolerance simply to be I'm going to tolerate their opinion and my opinion counts for nothing.”

Proponents and foes did agree on one thing: Nothing in this legislation will take away the rights of gays. That, however, is because, unlike other states, they have no special protections under Arizona law, and that means there is no basis to sue an individual or business owner on claims of discrimination.

What that left, though, are questions of how HB 2153 would affect the ability of individuals to claim they are the victims of other kinds of discrimination now forbidden by state or federal laws.

In a separate action, the same panel voted Tuesday to spell out in state law that a minister need not facilitate or solemnize a marriage “that is inconsistent with the minister's sincerely held religious belief.”

Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, acknowledged he knows of no effort to force a minister, rabbi, priest or other religious leader to preside over a gay wedding. He said, though, HB 2481 is a preemptive measure against the possibility that a federal court may eventually overrule Arizona's constitutional provision which limits marriage to one man and one woman.

But Tracey Stewart of the Anti-Defamation League said the wording of the measure would allow others permitted to perform marriages to also turn away couples, even judges and justices of the peace in public offices.

The larger argument, however, was over the expansion of the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It already allows those who contend a law or regulation interferes with their exercise of religion to use that as a defense against charges of violating the act.

Joseph LaRue, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, said the concern is that protects individuals only from government action and not individual discrimination lawsuits. He cited a ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court which said a photographer could be sued for refusing to videotape a gay marriage.

That state, however, has legal protections for gays which do not exist in Arizona. But LaRue, whose organization says it advocates for “religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” said that ruling and others like it open the door for lawsuits by individuals who claim other forms of discrimination and leave businesses defenseless.

Ron Johnson who lobbies on behalf of the state's three Catholic bishops echoed the theme.

“We're seeing across the country legitimate threats, primarily in the courts, to religious liberties, to individuals to institutions, to businesses and to other groups,” he testified.

Rev. Andrew Barreras of the Reformed Catholic Church, said he sees it different.

“It opens a scenario for religions to practice bigotry based on their religious belief,” he said.

Several foes raised scenarios they said approval of the measure might allow, like a motel owner who sees Muslims as “infidels” to refuse to provide them a room, even if it is the only room available in town.

LaRue argued it's not quite that simple, saying the law has never given people the ability to do whatever they want under the banner of religious freedom.

He said the essence of the law is to require courts to use what's known as a “strict scrutiny” standard in determining whether someone who claims a religious objection can be forced to obey it.

“Under this test, it must be demonstrated that laws substantially burdening free exercise of religion further what's known as a 'compelling interest' and are what's known as the 'least restrictive means of achieving that interest,'” LaRue said. And he said that this legislation, in expanding the religious freedom rights in private lawsuits, will not change that.

But Elizabeth Forsyth, president-elect of the American Counseling Association, said that still provides too much leeway. She said a school teacher who does not believe in divorce might refuse to teach a child because his parents are no longer together, or a doctor might not serve a single mother.

This measure needs approval of the full House before going to the Senate.

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