Arizona House passes bill protecting religion

Thursday, May 16, 2013

PHOENIX  — An effort to allow people to sue over potential violations of religious liberty cleared the Arizona House of Representatives on Wednesday despite opposition from civil liberties groups who warn the measure will inspire waves of lawsuits over alleged First Amendment violations.

The GOP-led House voted 32-24 along party lines to move the bill forward after little debate. Senate Bill 1178 now goes to the Senate for passage.

The proposed law would allow people to sue over an “impending violation” of religious liberty, as opposed to waiting until after the attack has occurred. It protects the practice or observance of all religions, including actions motivated by religious beliefs, against state and local laws or policies.

Civil liberties groups have rallied against the bill, saying it would be a nightmare for businesses because it doesn’t specify what constitutes a potential violation of religious liberty.

Arizona law and the U.S. Constitution already protect the free exercise of religion, but proponents say stricter language is needed. For example, they claim the bill will expand protections for prayer events hosted by government officials, as well as for religious leaders who don’t recognize gay couples.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough of Chandler, the bill’s sponsor, initially introduced a broader bill that would have allowed people to sue governments over attacks on religious freedom, regardless if the government was involved in the claim. The initial measure also stipulated that governments could only limit religious liberties to further an “interest of the highest magnitude.” Proponents said that version of the bill would have been one of the strongest religious freedom laws in the nation.

The bill was recently tempered to win over some critics who said it was too expansive. Yarbrough said Wednesday that he would have preferred if the bill had not been changed, but he supports the amended legislation and wants to see it advance in the Senate.

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