Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is facing a pressing decision about a bill on her desk that has sparked a national debate in the US over religious and gay rights.
The Republican governor returned to Arizona on Tuesday after spending five days in Washington attending a national conference of state governors to find herself in a radically different political climate than in the previous week.
Arizona’s legislature last week passed a bill allowing businesses whose owners cite sincerely held religious beliefs to deny service to gays. It allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any legal action brought by the government or individuals claiming discrimination.
The legislation has caused a national uproar and the chorus of opposition has grown each day, with Arizona’s business community, the state’s Super Bowl Committee and both of its Republican US senators calling for it to be vetoed.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was the latest prominent voice to weigh in and urge Brewer to axe the bill. Business leaders are concerned that if the bill is approved it could embarrass the state and adversely impact its convention and tourism sector.
Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona’s plan is the only one that has passed. Parallel efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.
There is speculation that Brewer will veto US Senate Bill 1062, but she has not said how she will act.
Political observers in Arizona said the governor is deliberate and not prone to act hastily, despite the growing calls from businesses, politicians of all stripes and civil rights groups for a veto.
“She’s no rookie to these high-profile deals — she gives both sides their due,” said Doug Cole, a political consultant whose firm has run Brewer’s campaigns for decades. “She’s going to get a very detailed briefing from her legal team and give the proponents their best shot, and the opponents their best shot.”
Also calling for a veto are several Republican senators who pushed the bill through the state legislature, but who cite “inaccurate” information about the measure as responsible for igniting the firestorm. They say the bill is designed to protect business owners with strong religious beliefs from discrimination lawsuits and some blame the media for blowing the law out of proportion.
Democrats say that argument does not wash and call the bill “toxic” legislation that enables discrimination. They said they warned Republicans who voted for the bill that it was destined for trouble.
“We brought this to their attention five weeks ago,” Democratic state Senator Steve Gallardo said. “We said this is exactly what is going to happen. 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 was pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a socially conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal simply clarifies existing state laws and is needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts.
Center president Cathi Herrod said she was disappointed that “false attacks and irresponsible characterizations about a piece of legislation can so intimidate and persuade people to change their opinion about religious liberty.”