By Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Mary Jo Pitzl The Republic | azcentral.com Thu Feb 27, 2014 10:56 PM
The demise of Senate Bill 1062, which was widely denounced as discriminatory against gays and lesbians, may not be the last word in Arizona’s debate over religious freedoms and civil rights this legislative session.
Another bill, also being touted as protecting religious freedom, has garnered little attention but could again force lawmakers to take a stand on a divisive issue.
House Bill 2481, which has advanced on mostly party-line committee votes and is awaiting a debate by the full House of Representatives, would prevent government from requiring ordained clergy and judges to “solemnize a marriage that is inconsistent with the minister’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, is narrower than SB 1062, which would have offered a legal defense for individuals and businesses facing discrimination lawsuits if they could have proved they acted upon a “sincerely held religious belief.”
SB 1062, which Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed Wednesday, moved through the Legislature on a fast track and drew loud criticism only last week, when it came up for formal votes in the House and Senate. Democrats lambasted the bill, calling it a license to discriminate, provoking a debate that ran for hours.
Public reaction was swift and negative. Business executives openly worried about the bill deterring economic activity in the state, and the NFL, which is bringing the Super Bowl to Glendale next February, expressed concern about the legislation.
Montenegro said he hopes the intense uproar over SB 1062 will not influence votes on his bill.
An assistant pastor at a Surprise church, Montenegro told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that the legislation grew out of instances in New Jersey and England, where churches were sued for refusing to perform same-sex ceremonies. He said the legislation would also apply to priests, pastors, rabbis and others who might be asked to sanction marriages that contradict their beliefs and teachings.
“The intent of my bill is to directly protect clergy, churches, man or woman of the cloth, to protect them from doing marriage ceremonies that go against their faith,” Montenegro said.
He could not provide an example of a clergy member in Arizona who has been forced to act against his or her beliefs in marrying individuals. Marriage is defined in the state Constitution as only between a man and a woman.
Montenegro said lawmakers will be “careful,” deliberative and sensitive as they consider the legislation. It is unclear when or if the bill will be heard by the full House.
The bill has drawn little interest or criticism.
The Anti-Defamation League has spoken against a provision that would extend the right to refuse to conduct ceremonies to judges, justices of the peace and clerks who perform them.
Religious officials are already exempt from lawsuits filed by people who feel they were wrongly denied marriage services, said Tracey Stewart, assistant regional director for the Anti- Defamation League.
But judges and other civil servants are not men of the cloth, she said.
“Those are usually individuals who are employed by government,” Stewart said.
Part of their public service as a government official extends to performing civil, not religious, marriage ceremonies, she said.
Political scientist John J. “Jack” Pitney Jr., who closely watches Arizona politics, said lawmakers’ inclination will be to avoid legislation similar to SB 1062, given the reaction from economic powerhouses like Apple and the NFL and high-profile political players such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
“If that’s the dominant voice they’re hearing, the conclusion is they’ve got to walk away,” said Pitney, of Claremont McKenna College in Southern California.
Lawmakers, who are now wary of any legislation that could cast Arizona as intolerant, told The Republic on Thursday that they would approach any bill similar to SB 1062 cautiously and on a case-by-case basis.
Many said they would oppose legislation that could ignite turmoil similar to that surrounding SB 1062.
Others declined to talk about how the public reaction to SB 1062 might affect future bills dealing with religious freedoms.
When asked, Scottsdale Republican Sen. Michele Reagan speed-walked away from a reporter, saying, “Oh, I don’t want to talk about (SB) 1062. I’m working on other things.”
Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, responded, “I think you’ve got enough on (SB) 1062.”
And Chandler Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, who sponsored SB 1062, said he would have to think about whether he would support similar bills now.
Other lawmakers added to the growing number who have expressed regret for their votes in favor of SB 1062.
“I didn’t come down here to hurt people,” said Rep. Bob Robson, R- Chandler. “There are times you take a vote, and then you feel queasy.”
On Wednesday, after Brewer vetoed SB 1062, Robson issued a statement expressing “deep regret that I had been unable to foresee the consequences of passing this legislation.”
That put him in line with his seatmates, Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, and Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, who both said the economic threats and bad publicity brought on by the bill’s passage made them question the need for SB 1062.
Rep. Frank Pratt, R- Casa Grande, said the reaction surprised him, as it did many GOP lawmakers. If he had known it would spark that level of backlash, he said, “I probably would reconsider my vote.”
Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, stood by his vote. He said he was disgusted lawmakers allowed “outside entities” like the NFL “to dictate” what the state does. But he doubted similar legislation would have support.
Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson and a GOP candidate for governor, reacted to the veto by calling for lawmakers to regroup and make another run at legislation similar to SB 1062. But that idea appears to be a non-starter.
“Noooo,” Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said when asked about the prospect of resurrecting the bill. “I would urge leadership not to.”
McComish said he would not support legislation similar to SB 1062.
“If there was a 1062- esque vote, no — not for me, anyway,” he said. “Where we missed the boat was not understanding the perception of the bill. We looked at it clinically.”
Phoenix Republican Adam Driggs, who voted for SB 1062 but later rescinded his support, said, “I’m not going to do anything that would reinvigorate the turmoil — there’s no reason to go there.”
Driggs said that the legislation was widely misunderstood and that lawmakers miscalculated how the public would react to “erroneous” perceptions about the measure.