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Religious freedom bill raises complicated legal questions for Ariz., other states

Wednesday, February 26, 2014
Cheryl Evans, The Arizona Republic (AP)Opponents of the SB1062, a religious freedom bill, urged Gov. Brewer to veto the bill during a protest rally at the state Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014.

Cheryl Evans, The Arizona Republic (AP)
Opponents of the SB1062, a religious freedom bill, urged Gov. Brewer to veto the bill during a protest rally at the state Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014.

PHOENIX — The bill has galvanized business leaders and gay-rights supporters nationwide, united libertarians and Christian conservatives and stirred up a passionate debate on topics like religion and discrimination.

Opponents of Ariona’s legislation, Senate Bill 1062, call it state-sanctioned discrimination because it provides legal protection to business owners who refuse service to gays. But those on the other side say it’s a relatively small change to an existing state law covering religious freedom.

The bill was approved by the Arizona Legislature last week and is now in the hands of Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who is deciding whether to veto or sign the legislation.

Lost in all the rhetoric over the bill on social media, on cable news and in capitol protests is the fact that the legislation is actually a nuanced and complicated legal shift. Here are some questions and answers about the legislation:


The bill is an update of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been in place since 1999. Many states have these laws, and Arizona’s mirrors a similar 1993 federal law of the same name.

The act already protects churches and religiously observant citizens from laws that substantially burden their exercise of religion. The proposal would expand the law to protect any individual, association or corporation from discrimination lawsuits if their actions are based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Proponents say the bill before the governor is designed to give businesses the right to refuse to participate in gay marriages and other activities that run afoul of their religious beliefs.


Some states, including Oregon and New Mexico, have extended the definition of “protected classes” in their laws to include LGBT people. Protected classes under federal law include sex, race, national origin or religion. Those expanded laws have been used to sue small businesses whose owners refused to provide services at gay marriages.

In New Mexico, a photographer was sued amid objections over a gay couple wanting wedding pictures taken. In Oregon, a baker who refused to do a gay couple’s wedding cake faced a complaint.

Arizona lawmakers who support the bill believe such legal actions are wrong. They say the wedding photographer and baker are being discriminated against because of their religion, and they want to make sure similar situations don’t occur in Arizona.


Opponents say the Arizona law is so broadly written that it could allow bartenders, restaurant owners and practically any business to use it as a shield to refuse service to people whose lifestyle isn’t in accordance with their beliefs. They say it will basically open the door to discrimination against gays and other groups of people.

The bill’s sponsors say it is needed in case other states’ extensions of protected classes under the law are adopted by Arizona. The bill would give those with strongly held religious beliefs a shield against lawsuits when they assert their First Amendment religious rights, its sponsors say.


The debate has produced several hypothetical scenarios. What about a kosher catering service being asked to serve pulled-pork sandwiches at an event? What about a deeply religious business owner who is opposed to interracial marriage?

Supporters of the measure dismiss the interracial scenario as a scare tactic brought up by opponents that is completely irrelevant in today’s society. They say the bill doesn’t change any laws barring such intolerance.

But one of the sponsors of the bill has cited the example of the Jewish catering service as a reason why the law is needed. Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said that the business owner should be protected from lawsuits under that scenario.


Christopher Lund, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, said it is ultimately up to the courts to weigh the tricky constitutional questions brought on by the bill. He cites the example of the New Mexico wedding photographer who was sued.

Lund said a gay couple bringing a similar lawsuit against a wedding photographer in Arizona would have a decent chance of prevailing in court even if SB1062 were to pass. That’s because a judge would have to balance the First Amendment rights of the photographer against the discrimination claim by the gay couple.

“Judges who are not sympathetic to the religious-liberty claim still have ways out,” he said.

Similar bills have been introduced in Kansas, Idaho, South Dakota, Maine, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Georgia and Mississippi, although Arizona’s bill in the only measure that has made it to the governor’s desk.

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18 more reader comments:

  1. They all seem to be in the same youth.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:21pm
  2. There has been so much made in the news lately about bills in various state legislatures that would permit a business establishment to refuse to serve someone based on religious grounds. While I’m sure there are those businesses that don’t mind losing business to make a religious statement, most are about making money. The real intent of these bills has very little to do with religious rights but the rights of corporations.
    Buried in the Arizona bill you’ll find language that expands the definition of “person” to include “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious entity or institution, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.” The key word in that phrase is corporation.
    The Arizona bill and others like it are nearly identical in wording and that is no coincidence. The same group has written these laws for each state. I think it would be very interesting to find the source of funding for these groups. I would not be shocked in the least to find out the money trail leads back to the infamous Koch brothers.
    By defining corporations as people the Koch brothers (and other uber-wealthy individuals) gain more control over the political machinations of these states and the ability to further enrich themselves under the guise of religious freedoms. Religious freedoms, I might add, that do not reflect the teachings of Christ. So, while this issue has become a political hot potato with deep feelings on each side the intent is about the rich gaining more control over our government, not any individual religious right.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:21pm
  3. You can not be gay and be Christian.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:25pm
  4. Sure you can. You just have to believe that love trumps the other laws.

    Replied on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:49pm
  5. Ya u can^?

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:29pm
  6. You can not be the rifleman

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:29pm
  7. U can b whatevrr u wanna b..

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:29pm
  8. It’s not complicated at all! Discrimination is still Discrimination no matter how you try to disguise it! Are you people really that Stupid?

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:30pm
  9. Make a decision already.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:33pm
  10. Luke Short shut up u sound like a u where a part of the racist men who wrote the bible too and wrote out black ppl. There is no god how would have been loving go suck a pipe

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:33pm
  11. Gay friends: Even a governor vetoing this absurd law. I hope you identify these hostile companies and not give a penny more for them.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:34pm
  12. Brilliant explanation, Keith Funk!

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:34pm
  13. The example cited in the article of a Jewish catering service being asked to provide pulled pork is at best specious. If a business is being asked to provide a service they normally provide, then they should not be able to use religious belief to create an exception. If the request is for something that would nor be provided to anyone, then refusing the service is legitimate whether religiously based or not. As it’s highly unlikely a Jewish catering service would provide pulled pork to anyone, refusing it to same sex marriage partners would simply be their normal business practice.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:35pm
  14. I think it’s pretty fundamental. If you are a service provider, you can not discriminate based on any factor imaginable (you will have to service aliens as long as they don’t hurt you personally or break any laws that threaten your well being.
    If you feel the need to discriminate, based on any aspect, you can’t provide services and might as well find a new job. Sorry, but when you are providing services, you should provide it equally to all the clients that find interest in the service.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:36pm
  15. Wow that’s what my girlfriends mom said but she phrased it “she can not be a good Christian with a gay daughter. ” this confuses me though because as Christians are YOU supposed to judge others?…… NO! So let’s all do something really quick, let’s think about the KKK’s religious views, does this mean they can now ban blacks from their stores? These laws are a disgrace to our country and anyone involved should be ashamed, move to Russia if you want to be a bigot!

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:37pm
  16. At one time in the united states religious parties fought that dark skinned people were nothing but slaves and one day the government woke up and realized that we are all human despite our skin and that segregation of dark skin was unjust. Not to long later the religious community also fought that woman had no place in making decisions or to be in roles that were considered to be the mans role. Like carrying a job and so forth and finally not that long ago were woman deemed to be just as human as a man and all laws were set to stop the discrimination of woman. Also at one time our country fought against the religious community that each individual is aloud their own religious beliefs. How is it that in the year 2014 we can find yet another community of people to segregate have we learned nothing from our ancestors. Can this country handle the fight once again to see that we are all human and what a humans belief is, is their own and should not be segregated for it. We in the country of the free have all agreed that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, as well as employment agencies and unions, from discriminating in employment based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It also prohibits retaliation against persons who complain of discrimination or participate in an EEO investigation. It is the belief individuals that same sex partnership is a way of life in which would make this lifestyle one under the origin of religious beliefs. Therefore, passing a law to go against a law we have nation wide already in practice. Thus for making this an act of cruel and unjust punishment toward a specific group of individuals. Same sex families deserve the same rights that we give to our brothers and sisters no matter what shade of brown we hold, what gender we have, or weather we are catholic, Muslim, or any other religion. The LGBT community is still human and lives under the belief that God still loves them as human. How can the country of the free say that we do not discriminate against religious beliefs if we segregate a community do to their beliefs. As an individual I stand high and proud to protect and stand up for my country the home of the brave and the land of the free. How can we expect the world to see us a role model country and send our brave to defend each nations right when at home we are being hypocritical. We expect the entire world to allow their people to live freely but we as a country segregate certain parties to different laws is this what we call freedom… If so we are no better than those that rule their nation and should no longer be called the land of the free but more the land of the free as long as you agree with what we say.

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:44pm
  17. I find it hard to believe that this country was based of people coming here to get away from religious persecution and now they use religion to persecute others

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:46pm
  18. And who’s the person that’s going to determine whether or not someone is gay or not you have to sleep with that person to really know. Otherwise you’re just making an assumption and we all know what that means you’re making a big ass of yourself

    Posted on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 10:47pm