PHOENIX -- A little religion could soon go a long way in avoiding unpopular government mandates.
The Arizona Senate passed a trio of bills Wednesday that seek to lower property taxes for religious institutions and make it easier for some people to sue over the First Amendment, much to the chagrin of civil liberties and secular groups who claim Arizona lawmakers are violating the U.S. Constitution by favoring the faithful over non-believers.
The Republican majority passed the bills amid opposition from Democratic lawmakers and with little debate. The legislation was backed by the powerful Center for Arizona Policy, which wields significant influence over conservative lawmakers in the Legislature.
Opponents of the measures argue religious institutions shouldn't receive special privileges not afforded to all Arizonans. They claim the bills seek to legalize discrimination and to stall the ongoing battle to extend equal rights to gay and secular communities.
"It is a bad precedent that the religious community is setting for the rest of the state," said Democratic Sen. Ed Ableser of Tempe. "It is all about taking what's for you and not sacrificing for the other."
Senate Bill 1178 would allow people to sue over potential violations of religious freedom. It passed in a 17-11 vote. It now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer for approval. The GOP-led House backed the measure in a 32-24 vote last week.
Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough of Chandler, the measure's sponsor, said the bill would not expand what people can claim a religious exemption for or alter the legal test that courts will use in religious freedom cases. He said the bill was not aimed at undermining a recent ordinance by the City of Phoenix that expanded protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
"It does not grant any new substantive rights," he said of the bill.
Civil liberties and secular groups counter that Yarbrough and the Center for Arizona Policy have sought to downplay the bill's far-reaching implications. They say the bill would allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense.
"I feel like they are being a little bit disingenuous," said Serah Blain, executive director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, of reassurances that the bill won't drastically overhaul current state laws on religious freedom. "Nobody really seems to have a clear sense of what this will do and that in of itself makes this a dangerous bill. It seems irresponsible."
Democratic Sen. Olivia Cajero Bedford of Tucson said the measure attacks women's health rights and could allow businesses to deny services to gay couples under the guise of religious liberty. She said the bill was not about religious freedom.
"It's instead about people trying to use religion to discriminate against gay individuals even when doing so is illegal under the law," she said.
Religious groups would also receive new economic privileges under the proposed laws.
House Bill 2446 would allow churches to avoid paying property taxes on vacant land, a practice already in place in Maricopa County. The Senate passed it in a 17-11 vote. The House passed it in March in a 35-24 vote that also fell along party lines.
Property used for worship is currently tax-exempt, but proponents of the measure say state and local governments need a clear policy on whether vacant land should be included under the exemption. Small governments that haven't recognized the undeveloped land when sending out property tax bills would have to change their policies if the measure became law.
"It's basically how we administer a religious exemption in Maricopa County right now. It would not materially affect how we do business in these situations," said Paul Petersen, spokesman for the Maricopa property assessor.
Ableser said swindlers will easily be able to take advantage of the tax exemption by posing as a religious institution and then sitting on vacant land before selling it for profit. State and local governments will likely turn to other taxpayers to recover the lost revenue, he said.
"In essence, this is a property tax increase for the rest of us," he said.
The original version of the bill would have protected properties not used for religious worship, including student dormitories and shelters owned by religious groups. Local property tax assessors said it went too far, and the measure was subsequently tempered.
House Bill 2645 would allow religious schools to avoid providing unemployment benefits to private school teachers and daycare workers. It passed in a 16-12 vote. The House passed the measure 36-23 in March.
"It's extremely harmful to the individuals working at churches," said Ableser, who deemed the measure unchristian.
Republican Sen. Chester Crandell of Heber seemed annoyed by Ableser's theological interpretations.
"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," Crandell said.
Arizona law already allows organizations operating primarily for religious purpose to avoid paying for unemployment benefits. Proponents argue that the proposed law is necessary after some state tax officials recently started interpreting the current religious exemption so that it only applies to church staff and not private school teachers. They predict religious schools will go bankrupt if they have to pay for unemployment benefits.
Blain said lawmakers need to honor the separation between church and state established by the First Amendment.
"Those are religious privilege bills," she said. "They allow religious organizations to receive benefits that secular organizations providing the same services don't have access to. It's essentially an example of government privileging religion over non-religion."