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Arizona Republicans have second thoughts after passing anti-gay bill

PHOENIX—Three Republican Arizona state senators who voted for a bill allowing business owners with strongly held religious beliefs to refuse service to gays sent a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer on Monday urging her to veto the legislation.

The letter came as more prominent Republicans pressed the GOP governor for a veto, including Sen. John McCain. Five of seven Republican candidates for governor also have called for the bill to be vetoed or withdrawn. The latest is Frank Riggs, a former California congressman, who said it is a “solution in search of a problem.”

Sens. Bob Worsley, Adam Driggs and Steve Pierce sent their letter urging the veto just days after they joined the entire 17-member Senate GOP caucus in voting for the bill.

“I was not comfortable with the vote,” Worsley told The Associated Press. “I have not been comfortable with this for some time. I think laws are on the books that we need and have now seen the ramifications of my vote. I feel very bad and it was a mistake.”

The legislation has set off a firestorm across the nation from gay rights backers and politicians of all stripes. Arizona’s two republican U.S. senators, Jeff Flake and McCain, are urging a veto, as are business groups like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. McCain weighed in Monday with a tweet saying “I hope Gov. Brewer will veto #SB1062.”

The bill is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal is needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts and simply clarifies existing state law.

CAP President Cathi Herrod is urging Brewer to sign the legislation and deriding what she called “fear-mongering” from its opponents.

“The attacks on SB 1062 ... represent precisely why so many people are sick of the modern political debate,” Herrod wrote in a weekend posting on the group’s website. “Instead of having an honest discussion about the true meaning of religious liberty, opponents of the bill have hijacked this discussion through lies, personal attacks, and irresponsible reporting.

“Our elected leaders have a fundamental duty to protect the religious freedom of every Arizonan, and that’s what SB 1062 is all about.”

If SB1062 is vetoed, it will be a major defeat for Herrod’s group, which is seen as a powerful force on the Arizona political scene. Herrod suffered a similar defeat last year when she tried to get the Legislature to tack anti-abortion language onto a Medicaid expansion bill that Brewer was pushing. That effort angered Brewer, herself a strong opponent of abortion.

The bill is expected to be formally transmitted to Brewer as early as Monday, and she’ll then have five days to act. Brewer doesn’t comment on pending legislation, but she vetoed a similar measure last year. That action, however, came during an unrelated political standoff, and it’s not clear whether she would support or reject this plan.

But with the business community lining up against the plan, Brewer could have cover for a veto. She’s worked hard to return Arizona’s economy to pre-recession levels with business-friendly incentives and tax cuts.

Pierce said he and the others went along to present a solid Republican front, despite misgivings.

“We were uncomfortable with it to start with and went along with it thinking it was good for the caucus,” Pierce said. “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.”

But their letter also said while the intent of their vote “was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance.”

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.

Opponents call it a license to discriminate against gays.

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. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.

Republicans stressed that the bill is not about discrimination but protecting religious freedom. They frequently cite the case of a New Mexico photographer who was sued after refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple. They said Arizona needs a law to protect people in the state from heavy-handed actions by courts.

Another frequently cited example is a suit brought against an Oregon baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

The businesses were sued, but those efforts came under state laws that extended protected-class status to gays. Arizona has no such law protecting people based on sexual orientation.

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