State lawmakers gave final approval Monday to legislation designed to keep state regulators from taking away anyone’s professional licenses based on his or her religious belief.
Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said SB 1288 will keep government from keeping someone from having to choose between religion and the ability to work in Arizona. He said it also will preclude people from being appointed to boards and commissions based on their beliefs.
But House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, said he fears the measure could be used by someone to hide behind a religious belief to promote some unorthodox — and potentially dangerous — activity. He said that even could extend to a doctor who contends his or her religious beliefs say that cancer should be treated with leeches.
Yarbrough, however, said nothing in the legislation, which now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer, protects anyone from either criminal acts or professional negligence.
The legislation is the latest effort to provide a religious shield to protect professionals.
Existing law already says health care providers do not have to participate in abortions. A separate law allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense “morning after” birth control is currently tied up in court.
Yarbrough said this measure seeks to extend religious exemptions for other fields.
He cited a 2008 effort by the State Bar of Arizona to alter an existing requirement that lawyers swear they “will not permit considerations of gender, race, age, nationality, disability or social standing to influence my duty of care.” The proposal would have added sexual orientation to that list.
Not signing the oath would not be an option, as attorneys cannot practice law in Arizona without being admitted to the Bar.
The plan eventually died. Yarbrough said the legislation will keep it from coming back.
More recently, questions were raised about whether members of a special screening panel refused to consider Christopher Gleason for the Independent Redistricting Commission because of his Christian beliefs. Screening panel members denied that was the case.
But Yarbrough said the incidents prove the need for some legal protection.
Campbell said there’s nothing wrong with putting religious protections into the law. But he called the language in SB 1288 “incredibly broad.”
“These religious beliefs can be of the recognized kind or not recognized,” he said. That refers to a provision that says a professional license cannot be denied because of “sincerely held moral or religious beliefs, regardless of whether those beliefs are specifically espoused by a recognized church or religious body.”
His example of where that could go wrong relates to the deaths of three people last year in a spiritual “sweat lodge” ceremony near Sedona last year. Self-help author James Arthur Ray has pleaded innocent to three counts of manslaughter.
“This bill is taking us down a dangerous road,” Campbell said.
Yarbrough said nothing in his legislation would affect cases like this.
“If it’s criminal, you still have exposure for it,” he said. And the legislation specifically spells out that it “does not authorize any person to engage in sexual misconduct or any criminal conduct.”
Yarbrough also said the measure does not protect anyone from being sued for negligence in civil court.
“It’s about the licensing aspect,” he said.
Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, said that still creates new legal protections he does not feel are appropriate.
“There are different religions that refuse to work with women,” he said, such as a real estate agent who would not sell property to a female. Gallego also cited an incident several years ago in Minnesota where Muslim taxi cab operators refused to transport passengers who were carrying alcoholic beverages.
“Under this law, those cab drivers would not have their licenses suspended,” he said.