Arizona governor holding meetings over rights bill
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was holding a series of private meetings Wednesday with opponents and proponents of legislation adding protections for people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays, a proposal that has focused national attention on the state as business groups, gay rights supporters and even many fellow Republicans urged her to use her veto power.
The governor faces a Saturday deadline to either sign Senate Bill 1062 or use her veto stamp. In a tweet from her official twitter account late Tuesday, the governor said: "I assure you, as always, I will do the right thing for the State of Arizona."
Brewer has been under increasing pressure to veto the proposal passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The proposal passed with support from all but three House Republicans and all 17 GOP state senators. Three of those senators, however, reversed course Monday and called for the governor to veto the SB1062.
"We were uncomfortable with it to start with and went along with it thinking it was good for the caucus," said Sen. Steve Pierce, R-Prescott. "We really didn't want to vote for it. But we made a mistake, and now we're trying to do what's right and correct it."
Their letter to Brewer, however, said the proposal had fallen victim to inaccuracies. Though their intent, they wrote, "was to create a shield for all citizens' religious liberties, the bill has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance."
Democrats said they warned Republicans who voted for the bill that it was destined for trouble.
"We said this is exactly what is going to happen," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "You have a bill here that's so toxic it's going to divide this Legislature. It's going to be polarizing the entire state. And that's exactly what happened."
The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any action brought by the government or individual claiming discrimination. Supporters call the bill a slight tweak to the state's existing religious freedom law, which does not extend protections to people based on sexual orientation.
The Senate sponsor, Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, defended the proposal and said his efforts were intended to extend the state's religious freedom law's reach to corporations and allow those sued for discrimination to cite the law even when the government isn't a party. He said a veto would be disappointing.
"I don't think it's a good thing for the state in the sense that I believe the First Amendment means what is says about the free exercise of religion. It's the first freedom in the First Amendment. It's there for a reason," Yarbrough said Tuesday. "And I think we need to take steps to implement that in a meaningful fashion."
Lawyers from across the political spectrum say much of the opponents' arguments that the bill opens the door to discrimination are overblown, but that has not eased the pressure on Brewer to act decisively.
The bill was pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal simply clarifies existing state law and is needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts.
"What's happened is our opponents have employed a new political tactic, and it's working," said Cathi Herrod, the group's president. "Throw out the threat of a boycott to attempt to defeat a bill, and you might just be able to be successful."
With the business community lining up against the proposal, Brewer could be hard-pressed to sign 1062. She has worked hard to return Arizona's economy to pre-recession levels with business-friendly incentives and tax cuts.
Meanwhile, the bill has brought increasing talk of economic damage to the state, and on Wednesday, the Hispanic National Bar Association said it was cancelling its 2015 convention in Phoenix because of the proposal, becoming one of the first groups to pull an event from that state.
President Miguel Alexander Pozo said the group's board of governors voted unanimously to withdraw, saying "it is imperative that we speak up and take immediate action in the presence of injustice." Last year, the Hispanic National Bar Association's convention drew about 2,000 people to Denver.
Among the businesses urging a veto are Apple Inc., which is opening a manufacturing plant in Mesa, American Airlines, Marriott and GoDaddy. Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney are also calling for a veto.
As Brewer held her meetings Wednesday, a federal judge declared Texas' ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, but he left it in place until an appeals court can rule on the case.
Judge Orlando Garcia issued the preliminary injunction after two gay couples challenged a state constitutional amendment and a longstanding law. He said the couples are likely to win their case and the ban should be lifted, but said he would give the state time to appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals before do so
The ruling in Texas follows a string of rulings that have struck down gay-marriage bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.
In Utah, attorneys for three gay and lesbian couples filed their opening brief late Tuesday with a federal appeals court, saying the state's same-sex marriage ban has "cemented discrimination" in the state against gays and their children.
The 118-page argument comes in response to the opening brief filed earlier this month by Utah state attorneys who argued the 2004-voter approved ban should stand because the optimal environment for raising children is with a mother and father.
Associated Press reporter Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Jesse Holland in Washington contributed.
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