PHOENIX - Arizona's Legislature has passed a controversial bill that would allow business owners, as long as they assert their religious beliefs, to deny service to gay and lesbian customers.
The bill, which the state House of Representatives passed by a 33-27 vote Thursday, now goes to Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican and onetime small business owner who vetoed similar legislation last year but has expressed the right of business owners to deny service.
"I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don't work with," Brewer told CNN in Washington on Friday. "But I don't know that it needs to be statutory. In my life and in my businesses, if I don't want to do business or if I don't want to deal with a particular company or person or whatever, I'm not interested. That's America. That's freedom."
As expected, the measure has drawn criticism from Democrats and business groups who said it would sanction discrimination and open the state to the risk of damaging litigation.
On Friday, the LGBT group Wingspan staged a protest march to the governor's office that drew about 200 people. Some carried signs with messages "God created us all equal" and "Shame on Arizona."
Tucson-based Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign with a message for state lawmakers: "We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators."
"It's a ridiculous bill," pizzeria manager Evan Stevens told CNN on Friday. "Arizona has much bigger problems than allowing businesses to discriminate against people."
In a statement, Anna Tovar, the state senate Democratic minority leader, said: "With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation. This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability."
The Greater Phoenix Economic Council, in a letter to Brewer on Friday, urged the governor to veto Senate Bill 1062, saying the "legislation will likely have profound, negative effects on our business community for years to come."
"The legislation places businesses currently in Arizona, as well as those looking to locate here, in potentially damaging risk of litigation, and costly, needless legal disputes," council President Barry Broome wrote, adding that four unidentified companies have vowed to locate elsewhere if the legislation is signed.
He added, "With major events approaching in the coming year, including Super Bowl XLIX, Arizona will be the center of the world's stage. This legislation has the potential of subjecting the Super Bowl, and major events surrounding it, to the threats of boycotts."
On CNN's "The Lead with Jake Tapper," Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican, said the bill would not allow hotel clerks or waiters, for instance, to turn away customers, unless there was a "substantial burden on their sincerely held religious beliefs."
The bill is being pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage. The group has justified the measure on grounds that the proposal protects people against increasingly activist federal courts.
"As we witness hostility towards people of faith grow like never before, we must take this opportunity to speak up for religious liberty," the group said on its website, asking people to contact Brewer and urge her to sign the bill. "The great news is that SB 1062 protects your right to live and work according to your faith."
Cathi Herrod, the center's president, told CNN on Friday, "The Arizona bill has a very simple premise, that Americans should be free to live and work according to their religious faith. It's simply about protecting religious liberty and nothing else."
Herrod said the bill's opponents are "showing unbelievable hostility toward religious beliefs."
"America still stands for the principle that religious beliefs matter (for) something in this country, that we have the right to freely exercise our religious beliefs," she said.
But Robert Boston, a spokesman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CNN the legislation would "fling the door wide open to discrimination, not just against gay people, but basically to any class of individuals that a religious fundamentalist decides he or she doesn't want to deal with."
He added, "A woman who is pregnant out of wedlock, for example, 'Well, out the door, you don't get served in my business.' "
The Arizona legislation was passed as conservative states work to counter laws legalizing same-sex marriage. Arizona voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona called the bill "unnecessary and discriminatory."
"What today's bill does is allow private individuals and businesses to use religion to discriminate, sending a
message that Arizona is intolerant and unwelcoming," the group said in a statement.
Some Republican legislators have defended the bill as a First Amendment issue. Democrats dismissed it as an attack on gays and lesbians.
"It's a very bad day for Arizona," Rep. Chad Campbell, a Phoenix Democrat who voted against the legislation, told CNN Friday.
He added, "Let there be no doubt about what this bill does. It's going to allow people to discriminate against the gay community in Arizona. It goes after unprotected classes of people and we all know that the biggest unprotected class of people in the state is the LBGT community. If we were having this conversation in regard to African-Americans or women, there would be outrage across the country right now."