Tribune file

Citing the fight in Washington over insurance coverage for birth control, the state Senate voted Tuesday to provide new legal protections for professionals who act or refuse to do things that violate their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said SB 1365 is necessary to ensure that the First Amendment rights of religious freedom are protected at all levels. He said that has to include the ability of those whose professions are regulated by the state to be guided by their beliefs without fearing they will have their licenses revoked.

And Yarbrough said if there is any doubt that freedom of religion is under attack, all anyone needs to do is look at the headlines.

“Who would have anticipated that the very power of the federal government to attack the free exercise of religion, the very right of the people to answer to their conscience, would dominate the front pages and be a huge issue?” he asked.

But Sen. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said the wording of the measure is too broad. He argued that would leave authorities powerless to revoke the state certification of police officers in the polygamous community of Colorado City even if they ignore reports of child abuse.

Yarbrough, however, said nothing in the legislation precludes someone from being disciplined for sexual misconduct or criminal activity.

The discussion about the state legislation and the party-line vote in favor of SB 1365 in the Republican-controlled state Senate mirrors the national debate about the role of government and how that intersects with religious beliefs.

The Obama administration drew fire for saying that all employers must include birth control in insurance coverage. While exceptions were provided for churches, other church-owned operations like hospitals had to comply.

Facing an outcry, the president backed away — a bit. Rather than requiring the employer to pay for birth control, the rules still mandate the coverage must be provided, but with the insurance companies picking up the cost. That has proven no more acceptable to foes.

Yarbrough, in pushing SB 1365 Tuesday, said the crafters of the U.S. Constitution purposely put the rights in the First Amendment ahead of all others.

“It comes before freedom to bear arms, freedom from self-incrimination and freedom from unreasonable search and seizures,” he said.

“It is critical that the power of the government not be used to threaten the licenses of professionals who exercise their freedom of religion,” Yarbrough said. “Neither should the government prefer or oppose persons it does business with because those persons choose to exercise their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.”

And despite the political divisions that have emerged in Washington — and in Arizona over this measure — Yarbrough said freedom of religion is not a partisan issue.

Lujan, however, said he fears “unintended consequences” if this measure becomes law, specifically citing Colorado City. He said there have been issues of town police officers “looking the other way” when crimes are happening, including underage girls being forced into polygamous marriages to much older men, welfare fraud and domestic violence.

“I would tell you that law enforcement would probably say up there that it’s their sincerely held religious beliefs in following ... Warren Jeffs of the FLDS church up there into why they look the other way in certain instances,” Lujan said. While Jeffs is currently jailed in Texas, there is some belief that he still controls the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon religion that the traditional LDS church disavows.

Lujan said the exceptions for criminal and sexual conduct do not go far enough to address the problems in Colorado City.

“You have law enforcement officers that are maybe not investigating criminal conduct but are just not doing their jobs if somebody doesn’t happen to be a member of FLDS,” he said.

But Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he believes those exceptions from protections are “very clear” and would ensure that Colorado City police officers would not be able to claim religious freedom in any challenge to rescinding their peace officer certification.

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