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House panel OKs bill to protect businesses' religious beliefs

PHOENIX -- An Arizona House panel on Tuesday approved changes to a proposed law beefing up protections for businesses that assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays and others, but the changes didn't placate critics who call the bill a way to allow discrimination.

The measure first introduced in the Senate by Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, was amended in the House Government Committee to try to mollify civil rights groups' concerns. But secular groups and members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community still strongly oppose the bill being pushed by the social conservative group Center for Arizona Policy.

Critics told the committee that the bill's primary purpose is to allow discrimination against gays.

``It most decisively takes away reasonable protections people have from the imposition of the religious beliefs of other upon them,'' Erica Keppler, a transgendered woman, said in an interview.

Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth called the concerns false, saying the changes were needed to protect Arizonans from judges across the country who have allowed lawsuits against people who say their religious beliefs led them to refuse service to someone. He pointed to a New Mexico case where a gay couple was allowed to sue a photographer who refused to document their wedding.

``Trust me. It's coming. This isn't one isolated case,'' Farnsworth said.

Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the Center for Arizona Policy, said the proposal is simply an effort to clarify protections already in state law, and it is not discriminatory.

``That is fear-mongering and a distraction from what this bill is really intended to be, and that it's about religious liberty, ensuring that in America, people are free to live and work according to their faith,'' he said.

Other supporters included the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian policy group, and the Arizona Catholic Conference.

Opponents worry that innkeepers, for instance, could refuse to rent a room to a gay couple or a Muslim couple and argue their religious beliefs dictated their action.

``This leaves the door open to all sorts of crazy religious practices,'' said John Shelton, with the Secular coalition for Arizona.

House Bill 2153 passed the House government committee on a 5-2 vote with the two Democrats opposing. The identical bill sponsored by Yarbrough, Senate Bill 1062, also has passed committee and could reach the full Senate soon.

Another bill approved by the committee on a party-line vote Tuesday would give legal cover to ministers who refuse to officiate over gay marriages. House Bill 2481 by Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro was opposed by the Anti-Defamation League because it also would allow justices of the peace, judges or other civil servants to refuse to oversee a marriage.

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