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States Reassess Anti-Gay Bills After Blowback From Arizona Legislation

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WASHINGTON -- While the nation's attention has been focused on an anti-gay bill advancing in Arizona, about a dozen other states have been quietly considering similar measures. These bills would also allow businesses, religious entities or even government officials to deny service to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

But with the bill in Arizona facing widespread criticism from Republican politicians to major U.S. corporations, some state lawmakers are getting cold feet. Three state senators who supported Arizona's SB 1062 have now said the legislation was a mistake and want Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto it.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers in Ohio pulled the plug on their similar bill after increased pressure from civil rights groups. According to the Northeast Ohio Media Group, the lawmakers plan to draft new language that will protect religious liberties without discriminating against individuals.

In Mississippi, a spokesman for House Speaker Philip Gunn (R) told the Clarion-Ledger that lawmakers are just now become aware of "some other things this bill might do" and want to take a closer look at it in committee. Gov. Phil Bryant (R) said Wednesday he is not yet ready to comment on the legislation and the impact it may have on the LGBT community.

According to the Campaign for Southern Equality, which opposes the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, debate in the state House could begin in committee as early as Thursday.

Similar legislation has also faltered in recent days in Idaho, Kansas, Maine, South Dakota and Tennessee. But that doesn't mean these bills are dead.

On Monday, as criticism began to build toward Arizona for SB 1062, a Republican state lawmaker in Missouri introduced a bill that he said was loosely based on the legislation in Arizona. A bill is still alive in the Georgia state legislature, as is a ballot measure in Oregon.

These measures follow a number of high-profile stories of discrimination from around the country. Businesses are getting blowback after turning away same-sex couples and denying them wedding cakes, photography services and access to venues.

States Considering "Religious Freedom" Bills:

ARIZONA: SB 1062 has garnered the most national attention and advanced the most quickly. The legislation says the state shall not "burden a person's exercise of religion," effectively allowing businesses to refuse service to LGBT individuals. Even though same-sex marriage is not legal in the state, restaurants could turn away same-sex couples celebrating an anniversary or pharmacists could refuse HIV and hormone replacement therapy drugs. After swiftly passing the state House and Senate, the bill awaits action by Brewer, who must sign or veto it by the end of the day Saturday. If she does nothing, it will automatically become law.

GEORGIA: The state's Preservation of Religious Freedom Act would affirm the "right to act or refuse to act in a manner substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious tenet or belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or a central part or requirement of the person's religious tenets or beliefs." Delta, Atlanta's largest employer, has already spoken out against the measure. A state House committee was supposed to take up HB 1023 on Tuesday, but it was postponed until Wednesday and then canceled. In the Senate, the bill is awaiting a full vote by the Senate and must pass by Monday in order to stay alive.

HAWAII: HB 1624 aimed to prevent the state from passing laws that burden the exercise of religious freedom. It has been effectively killed for the session after a majority of the state House voted to send it back to committee.

IDAHO: HB 427 would also expand protections to individuals on "religious freedom" grounds, allowing them protection if they discriminate against gays and lesbians. A companion measure, HB 426, would have specified that professionals who invoked these religious beliefs would not lose their occupational licenses. Idaho Attorney Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane concluded that both measures would be vulnerable to constitutional challenge. State Rep. Lynn Luker (R), the sponsor of both bills, announced last week that he would pull his bill from consideration and return it back to committee, regretting that "many misinterpreted the intent to be a sword for discrimination." HB 426 never received a committee hearing and is not expected to move forward.

KANSAS: HB 2453 was particularly troubling to LGBT rights advocates. It said that no individual, religious entity or government official had to provide any service "if it would be contrary to the sincerely held religious beliefs of the individual or religious entity regarding sex or gender." Therefore, a government official could refuse to process the employment benefits of a gay individual on the grounds of "religious freedom." It passed the state House but stalled in the state Senate when Republican leaders determined it went too far and was discriminatory. On Feb. 18, the chairman of the state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman said he had no plans to even take up the measure.

MAINE: LD 1428 was similar to Arizona's legislation, saying that the government could not infringe upon a person's religious freedom except in cases of "compelling state interest." Opponents worried that not only would it allow discrimination against LGBT individuals, but it could also infringe upon the Affordable Care Act's mandate that insurance companies cover contraceptives. Both the state House and Senate voted it down last week.

MISSISSIPPI: In January, the Mississippi state Senate passed SB 2681, which said the state could not "burden a person's right to the exercise of religion." In the midst of the debate in Arizona, state lawmakers said they are taking a closer look at the measure, and Gov. Phil Bryant (R) has not taken a position on it. It awaits action by a House committee.

MISSOURI: On Monday, state Rep. Wayne Wallingford (R) filed SB 916, which he said was based loosely on the legislation introduced in Arizona and Kansas. Justifying his measure, he said he also wanted to make sure that there was no discrimination against religious individuals. "There's discrimination kind of on both sides. I certainly don't want any discrimination in the workforce," Wallingford said. "But I'm also concerned about discrimination going the other direction." SB 916 has not yet been assigned to committee.

OKLAHOMA: SB 1846 was introduced in the state Senate in January, but it currently does not have any action scheduled in the state legislature.

OHIO: HB 376 mirrored Arizona's "religious freedom" legislation. Under pressure from activists on Wednesday -- and in the midst of the debate over the Arizona bill -- the two lead sponsors agreed to withdraw the bill from consideration.

OREGON: In November, a group calling itself Friends of Religious Freedom unveiled a ballot measure "intended to exempt a person from supporting same-sex ceremonies in violation of deeply held religious beliefs." Opponents and supporters of the measure are now negotiating over the 15-word title that will appear on the ballot and is required before it can qualify to appear before voters.

SOUTH DAKOTA: SB 128 is intended to "protect the citizens and businesses of South Dakota 1 regarding speech pertaining to views on sexual orientation and to provide for the defense 2 of such citizens and businesses." Last week, a state Senate committee effectively killed the bill by deferring it to the 41st day of the 40-day legislative session.

TENNESSEE: SB 2566 was quickly dubbed the "Turn the Gays Away" bill by activists. It would have protected businesses that denied services related to a civil union, domestic partnership or same-sex marriage. After significant backlash from activists and the business community, the sponsors of legislation in the state Senate dropped the bill last week and effectively killed it, for now.

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