News (USA)

Group behind Ariz. religious freedom bill meeting with GOP conservatives

Ross D. Franklin, APJo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin, AP
Jo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB 1062, an anti-gay religious freedom bill, at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — The social conservative group behind 2014 legislation that would have allowed people to refuse to serve gays in the name of religion has been meeting with Republican lawmakers to craft its 2015 agenda in the Arizona Legislature.

Cathi Herrod of the Center for Arizona Policy attended a meeting of about a dozen lawmakers on the “Arizona Values Action Team” Monday at a state building near the Capitol.

An Associated Press reporter was barred from the closed-door lunch-hour gathering, but documents obtained by the AP show Herrod’s group is again pushing religious rights, anti-abortion and school-choice legislation. The meeting and agenda outlined in the documents illustrate the clout and access Herrod has with Arizona lawmakers even after a national uproar among gay-rights supporters over last year’s Senate Bill 1062.

The bill was written by Herrod’s group. But it was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Jan Brewer, who wanted to avoid the negative spotlight as Arizona was portrayed by opponents as pushing an extreme, discriminatory agenda. Major corporations, the state’s two Republican U.S. senators and its 2015 Super Bowl committee blasted the bill.

As Arizona hosts the Super Bowl this week, lawmakers have mainly avoided introducing any provocative legislation along the lines of what happened last year and in 2010 over the immigration crackdown known as SB1070. But Herrod has been hard at work crafting legislation designed to advance her group’s conservative agenda.

In an interview, Herrod defended holding the closed-door meeting, saying it was “not something sinister.”

“This is standard fare – it’s not an issue of transparency,” she said, noting that once legislation is introduced it gets public hearings and full debate.

Herrod said the group intends to back legislation expanding the state’s school voucher and private school tuition tax credits programs, extending property tax breaks to owners of buildings leased to churches and preventing policies sold on the federal health insurance exchange in Arizona from covering abortion.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who sponsored last year’s Senate Bill 1062, heads the Arizona Values group. Yarbrough said the meeting was private, and he won’t be carrying any of the proposed legislation in his new role as Senate majority leader.

“I hope we (introduce) pro-life legislation, pro-school choice legislation, pro-religious freedom legislation,” Yarbrough said. “All that sound like great ideas to me.”

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