PHOENIX -- A Senate committee has given initial approval to a bill allowing people to claim their religious beliefs led them to refuse service to gays or others.
The bill pushed by Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough also broadened a bill that was vetoed last year to include corporations and other entities.
Civil rights groups are opposed to the bill, saying it will allow discriminatory actions by businesses. Yarbrough says his push was prompted by a New Mexico case where the state Supreme Court allowed a gay couple to sue a photographer who refused to take pictures of their wedding.
He said his effort is simply an attempt to clarify protections for religious beliefs, although he acknowledged current state law likely is adequate. He downplayed concerns that businesses like hotels, for instance, could refuse to rent rooms to gays or unmarried women under the measure, saying federal civil rights laws still apply.
"That's all it does," Yarbrough said. "And all this going crazy, lighting their hair on fire is misplaced."
Last year's legislation would have allowed people or religious groups to sue if they believed they might be subject to a government regulation that infringed on their religious rights. Yarbrough stripped that provision from the bill.
Civil-liberties and secular groups countered that Yarbrough and the Center for Arizona Policy had sought to minimize concerns that last year bill's had far-reaching and hidden implications. They said the bill would allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defense.
The groups are still opposed, saying in testimony before a Senate committee Thursday that the bill aims to fix a problem that doesn't exist and confer new rights on religious groups over minority groups.
"Freedom means freedom for everyone, and it is wrong to treat someone differently because of who they are," said Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona, a gay rights group.
Senate Bill 1062 passed the Senate Government and Environment Committee on a 4-2 party-line vote. It now heads to the full Senate after a review in the Senate Rules Committee.
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