Arizona governor vetoes gay bill religious opt-out

Demonstrators celebrate in Phoenix, Arizona. Picture AP
Demonstrators celebrate in Phoenix, Arizona. Picture AP
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The Republican governor of the US state of Arizona has vetoed a bill pushed by social conservatives that would have allowed people with religious beliefs to refuse to serve gay people, a proposal that put America’s deep polarisation over homosexuality on stark display.

Slapping down her party’s right wing, Jan Brewer vetoed the bill after companies including Apple and American Airlines and more moderate Republicans such as Senator John McCain had warned it would hurt the state and could alienate businesses looking to expand there.

Loud cheers erupted outside the Arizona Capitol building immediately after Ms Brewer made her announcement.

She said the bill “could divide Arizona in ways we could not even imagine and no-one would ever want”. It was broadly worded and could result in unintended negative consequences, she added.

The bill would have allowed people to claim their religious beliefs as a defence against claims of discrimination. Democrats said such legislation could allow people to break nearly any law and cite religious freedom as a defence.

The governor’s office said it had received more than 40,000 calls and e-mails on the proposal, with most urging a veto.

Similar bills are making their way through many state legislatures. Some are intended to maintain bans on gay marriage, others to protect individuals or businesses who do not want to serve same-sex couples, citing religious reasons.

In one closely watched case, a federal judge declared Texas’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, but he left it in place until an appeal court can rule. Similar rulings have been made in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.

Conservatives are wrestling with how to respond to the growing legality of gay marriage. Polls show growing public support for gay marriage in the US, and at least 17 states, mostly in the north-east, now allow same-sex couples to marry.

But there has been a backlash among conservatives, who say “activist” judges are overturning the will of citizens who have voted to ban same-sex marriage.

“Texans spoke loud and clear by overwhelmingly voting to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman in our constitution, and it is not the role of the federal government to overturn the will of our citizens,” Texas governor Rick Perry said.

Arizona’s bill thrust the state into the national spotlight last week after both chambers of the state legislature approved it.

However, three Republicans who voted for the bill last week then changed their minds and urged Ms Brewer to veto it. They said in a letter to her that, while the intent of their vote “was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has been mischaracterised by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance”.

The Centre for Arizona Policy, a powerful social conservative group that backs conservative Christian legislation and is opposed to gay marriage, argued that the law was needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply clarifies existing state law. “We see a growing hostility toward religion,” Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group, said.

Arizona’s voters approved a ban on gay marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. A lawsuit challenging the ban is still in its early stages. It is one of 29 states with such a ban.