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Committee approves proposed changes to Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act

January 31st, 2014  |  Deborah Hammonds

Controversy swirls around the recent passage of an Arizona state senate bill which detractors say would allow discrimination against individuals if it’s founded on religious beliefs.

On January 16, the Arizona Senate Committee on Government and Environment voted 4 to 2 in favor of SB 1062. The measure would amend Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to among, other things, expand the definition of a “person” to include any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, estate, trust, foundation, or other legal entity. According to the bill’s opponents, the change would permit businesses in the state to discriminate against LGBT individuals, unmarried women, and non-Christians.

The proposed legislation would also expand the meaning of “exercise of religion” to include both the practice and the observance of religion. Moreover, if enacted, the current law’s prohibition against burdening a person’s exercise of religion by “government” action would be changed to “state” action, but would also encompass nongovernmental persons. In addition, the bill would allow a free exercise of religion defense to be raised in any judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.

With these changes, the revised Arizona law would provide that state action “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” only when the opposing party is able to demonstrate that the application of the burden to the person’s exercise of religion in that particular instance is both (1) in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

According to media reports, the bill’s sponsor, Senator Steve Yarbrough, has said that the bill would protect Christian photography business owners who decline to photograph lesbian weddings due to religious beliefs; hotel owners who (presumably due to religious beliefs) refuse to rent rooms to LGBT people; and businesses with a religious objection to hiring unmarried women.