A House panel voted Wednesday to void parts of local anti-discrimination ordinances designed to give protections to transgendered individuals.
The legislation approved by the Republican-controlled Appropriations Committee on a 7-4 party-line vote prohibits any local community from enacting or enforcing any local law or rule that requires a business to let individuals to use the restroom, locker or dressing room of his or her "gender identity or expression'' choice.
More to the point, SB 1045 would prohibit any individual or business from being prosecuted criminally for refusing to let someone into a restroom that the owner does not believe is gender appropriate. And those denied admission could not sue.
Wednesday's vote came despite a parade of witnesses - many of them transgendered - who questioned the need for the measure and suggested it amounts to a type of discrimination.
But Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he had no choice following the decision last month by Phoenix to expand its existing anti-discrimination ordinances to cover people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. That law covers places of public accommodation.
Foes quickly dubbed it the "bathroom bill,'' saying it would pave the way for individuals who are anatomically male but self-identify as female to be able to demand access to facilities reserved for women.
Kavanagh's original proposal would have made it a crime, subject to a six-month jail term, for anyone to use a restroom that does not match what is on that person's birth certificate. That led to claims Arizona was enacting a "show me your papers'' law before someone can go to the bathroom.
When that provoked an outcry, Kavanagh admitted the proposal "went too far.''
The new version says nothing about who can use what facilities. And businesses would remain free to allow customers to make their own decisions.
But Kavanagh said it ensures that individuals and firms who want to impose limits do not wind up in court -- or in jail.
Kavanagh said his legislation would not become a license for businesses to discriminate.
"If you choose to designate your bathroom, your public showers and your locker rooms -- and the latter two are more critical areas because that's where people are naked -- if you choose to say 'male only' or 'female only' and you question somebody who doesn't fit that category, Phoenix can't lock you up and say you're a criminal and that person can't sue you by virtue of some special lawsuit ability created by Phoenix law,'' he said.
But Rep. Stefanie Mach, D-Tucson, disagreed.
"We're empowering businesses to openly discriminate,'' she said.
Not just Phoenix firms would be affected. Other cities, including Tucson and Flagstaff, have similar anti-discrimination ordinances, and there was no testimony about complaints against businesses denying transgendered individuals access to restrooms.
Tucsonan Claire Swinford said she sees this on a more personal level.
"There is not enough evidence to make a compelling case there is any risk to allowing transgendered persons to use a restroom that is proper to their gender identity,'' said Swinford who is a transgendered woman born as a male. "There is a great deal of evidence that not allowing us to creates a greater risk for us, which negatively impacts my right to be secure in my person.''
And Elizabeth Forsyth, president of the Arizona Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling, told lawmakers this is a real issue, saying one out of every 12 transgendered individuals is murdered.
Swinford said she also has heard there are people who are "uncomfortable'' with transgendered individuals in a restroom.
"Discomfort is not a matter of safety,'' she said.
But Kavanagh said the feelings of the "overwhelming majority'' of the population do matter and cannot be ignored.
"When you say that having a mother with her young daughter, maybe a 10-year-old daughter, in a locker room, who suddenly sees a person who physically and biologically is male, naked ... (that) is a lot more than a comfort issue,'' he said.
And Kavanagh said his legislation is not about denying anyone civil rights.
"This bill is about civility,'' he said. "Society has mores and customs.''
Not everyone testified against the measure.
Nohl Rosen, owner of Panther TEK, a computer training and repair company in Phoenix, said the city ordinance "violated my rights as a business owner.''
"Businesses deserve the right to dictate the policies in their establishment,'' he said. "This law takes that away from us.''
And Rosen told lawmakers he did not understand the fuss about forcing people to use the restroom that matches their birth gender.
"I was born a male,'' he said. "I use the men's room. That's it.''
But Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said it's not that simple. She said if transgendered individuals are denied access to the restroom of their identity -- and how they dress -- that leaves them with no options.
Michael Woodward, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, told of his own story of spending the first 36 years of his life "trying to live in a female body I was born into.'' Woodward told lawmakers he is happier than he ever has been.
"And a lot of it is due to the fact that I'm no longer forced to use the ladies' room,'' he said. "Believe me, I was way more uncomfortable there than any woman ever was.''
The Rev. Brad Wishon expressed the issue in different fashion, pointing out that Gov. Jan Brewer has declared Arizona a "Golden Rule State.'' And he said that is based on the teachings of Jesus, which include treating others as you would have them treat you.
"We're not allowed to exempt that just because we're uncomfortable with them,'' he said.
Peri Jude Radecek, director of the Arizona Center for Disability Law, said the legislation will create problems beyond the transgender community. She said it could be interpreted to preclude city ordinances - and the Americans with Disabilities Act - to ensure that disabled individuals have access to restrooms.
Kavanagh said if staff attorneys determine that is a legitimate issue he will attempt to alter the language.