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Updated Mar 21, 2013 - 2:45 pm

Arizona GOP looks to expand religious freedom law

PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers in Arizona are backing legislation that would create one of the strongest religious freedom laws in the nation.

The measure would make it more difficult for governments to place any limits on a person's religious freedom. It would also allow a person claiming a religious burden to seek relief against the government in court. The government would not need to be a party in the civil or criminal case for the person to seek relief.

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough said his proposed law would be among the nation's strongest First Amendment protections. Yarbrough introduced the bill this week in a rare procedural move that allows legislation to be considered after the standard deadline. He said he wasn't seeking to address a specific problem or case, only to strengthen the state's existing religious freedom law.

``The free exercise of religion is at the core of America,'' he said.

A House of Representatives committee advanced the legislation Thursday without debate. Two Democratic lawmakers opposed it.

Under current Arizona law, government may limit a person's religious freedom because of a compelling government interest.

The proposed law would apply to any state or local actions. It says governments can only limit religious freedom to further an ``interest of the highest magnitude'' that cannot be achieved otherwise.

It defines a burden as ``any action that directly or indirectly constrains, inhibits, curtails or denies the exercise of religions by any person or compels any action contrary to a person's exercise of religion.''

``It's not a blanket position that says, `you raise this as a defense and you get to do whatever you want,''' said Yarbrough, who self-identifies as an evangelical Christian and is the executive director of the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization.

Critics said they were alarmed that the last-minute bill was advancing without much scrutiny.

``It's so broadly written and there are no exemptions, in fact, you could pretty much do whatever you want and get away with it,'' said Anjali Abraham, public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. ``The floodgates would burst open as to what people could do under the guise of religious freedom.''

The conservative Center for Arizona Policy supports the measure. Its leaders claim the law is necessary to protect against future lawsuits from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national atheist group that recently sued over Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's proclamations declaring a state ``day of prayer.'' The foundation claimed the proclamations violate a constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said he was suspicious of Arizona's proposed law. The organization often sues governments over separation of church and state issues.

``This law is not necessary,'' he said. ``We already have very strong religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution.''

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Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva

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