State senators gave final approval Wednesday to legislation supporters said enhances religious freedom while foes argue it will give people an ability to use their beliefs as an excuse to discriminate.
The legislation expands the situations under which someone can sue for claims that their beliefs are being infringed. In essence, it allows one person to use the law to sue another by claiming the underlying law affects their beliefs.
Senators also agreed to exempt some vacant land held by churches from property taxes. And they agreed to let church-run schools and child care centers refuse to provide unemployment benefits to their employees.
That latter proposal, HB 2645, drew fire from Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, who said it goes against religious principles to care for those in need. But that drew a sharp response from Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber.
"In reading the Scriptures, in my interpretation, there was no place where Christ ever said that the government should reach into my pocket and take the money out and give it to the poor,'' he said. Crandell said the Bible tells him of his own individual responsibility, something he said he could do more of if the government was taking less of his money.
But the most far-reaching of these three, all of which now go to Gov. Jan Brewer, could be the expansion of the state's existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Current law permits an individual to sue the government if they believe that a law, rule or regulation interferes with their right to practice religion. It is then up to a court to decide if there was some infringement and, if so, whether it was legally justified.
SB 1178 would permit people to use the state law as a shield in disputes with others.
Josh Kredit, legislative counsel to the Center for Arizona Policy, said a case in New Mexico, which has a similar law, case points up the need for the change. He said that case involved a professional photographer who refused to photograph the commitment ceremony of a same-sex couple. Kredit said they sued him, citing an anti-discrimination provision of state law.
Kredit said the court would not allow the photographer to claim the religious freedom protections of the New Mexico law because the government was not a party to the litigation. SB 1178 would permit someone in a similar situation to use the Arizona law to justify in court their refusal to do something as a violation of religious beliefs.
"It merely changes the process involved,'' argued Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler.
But Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson, said she sees the measure as providing a state shield for discrimination. She said it is part of "an agenda that rolls back women's health and rights and curtails equality for all Americans, all behind the guise of religious liberty.''
She said the legislation instead will be a weapon for people to use religion to discriminate against gays, even when doing so is illegal and has nothing to do with the actual practice of religion.
"Just because a restaurant owner is religiously opposed to same-sex relationships, for example, does not give that owner a legal right to deny a lesbian couple service in his or her establishment,'' Cajero Bedford said. "By this logic, people also have a right to discriminate against someone because they are Jewish, because they are African-American or because they are a woman as long as there is religious freedom rationale behind doing so.''
Kredit said that the changes SB 1178 makes do not alter the basics of the law. He said courts would still be required to uphold laws that someone might believe infringe on religious beliefs if government has a "compelling state interest'' and if the infringement is the "least restrictive means'' of accomplishing that interest. For example, he said a religious organization could not automatically decide to put a church wherever it wants, as courts could conclude the government has a "compelling'' interest in enforcing logical zoning laws.
The question of church property arose in HB 2446.
Current law already exempts land and buildings where churches are located from property taxes. This legislation extends that to vacant land if the property is not used or held for profit and the religious organization certifies at least once a year it plans to use the property for a religious use within a "reasonable time.''
But Ableser said it's not fair to broaden the exemption and let churches off the hook for their share of the cost of government.
"This is a property tax increase for the rest of us,'' he said.