How Arizona’s new anti-discrimination bill aims to protect gay rights and religion

The “Equality and Fairness for All Arizonans” bill builds upon a Utah law passed in 2015

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, business leaders, pastors and gay rights advocates came together Monday at the Arizona Capitol to push for passage of a new LGBTQ rights bill that would also protect houses of worship and other religious institutions.

“This is not about special treatment; it’s about equal treatment and opportunity for all. Nobody should live in fear ... simply for who they are or who they love,” said state Rep. Amish Shah, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, during Monday’s press conference.

Republican Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers, who is a co-sponsor, described the legislation as a chance to choose unity and understanding over conflict and anger.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity, as the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 14:13, to not place a stumbling block in front of my brother. For too long, we have held to opinions and thoughts that are stumbling blocks to each other,” he said.

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The “Equality and Fairness for All Arizonans” bill would update state civil rights law to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing, hiring and public accommodations. It would leave existing religious freedom protections in place, but not create new protections for religious business owners, like wedding cake bakers. It would also bar licensed health care professionals from taking part in conversion therapy.

Several speakers at Monday’s press conference emphasized that, although the bill covers many areas of public life, it does not address some of the most hot-button issues related to LGBTQ rights. For example, it would not resolve debates over transgender athletes.

“This bill is not a panacea. It does not solve every problem. ... But it’s an important step in the right direction,” said state Rep. Daniel Hernandez, who is a Democrat.

He and others noted that the proposed legislation emerged from years of dialogue between faith leaders, business owners and members of the LGBTQ community who sought to strengthen Arizona’s nondiscrimination laws without limiting the free exercise of religion.

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The group drew inspiration from recent city-level efforts to protect gay rights in Mesa, Glendale and Scottsdale.

“Passing our ordinance made Mesa as a community stronger. It made people feel safe and welcome. It opened a door to help us attract and talent (and) large events,” said John Giles, Mesa’s Republican mayor.

Michael Soto, executive director of Equality Arizona, speaks during a Feb. 7 press conference on the “Equality and Fairness for All Arizonans” bill. | Screenshot of Facebook livestream

The new bill also holds much in common with the federal “Fairness for All” Act, which is currently awaiting action in the U.S. House, as well as a Utah law protecting gay, lesbian and transgender residents from discrimination in housing and hiring. That law, which is commonly known as the Utah Compromise, passed in 2015.

Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have previously spoken in support of those two measures. On Monday, they released a statement in favor of the new Arizona bill.

“The church is pleased to be part of a coalition of faith, business, LGBTQ people and community leaders who have worked together in a spirit of trust and mutual respect to address issues that matter to all members of our community. It is our position that this bipartisan bill preserves the religious rights of individuals and communities of faith while protecting the rights of members of the LGBTQ community, consistent with the principles of fairness for all,” the statement said.

Supporters of Utah’s approach to balancing gay rights and religious freedom have long called on other states to follow its lead. However, compromise efforts have been complicated by growing partisan conflict, as well as some policymakers’ interest in waiting on the Supreme Court to offer guidance on how states should proceed.

In a string of recent cases involving religious freedom laws and discrimination claims, the court has emphasized the importance of allowing people of faith to live according to their beliefs. But the justices have also called for respect for members of the LGBTQ community and refused to say definitively that religious freedom trumps LGBTQ rights.

The Supreme Court has “left the door open for a more nuanced discussion,” said Robin Maril, a visiting assistant professor of law at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, to the Deseret News last year.

During the press conference on Monday, Bowers said that not everyone in the Arizona legislature or in his own party will see the issues in the bill the same way that he does. He emphasized that the path toward passage could be bumpy and declined to tell reporters whether the legislation currently has majority support.

“I do not anticipate a rose-strewn path in front of me. But we are here honorably and working together,” he said.

But he and other speakers said they remain optimistic. They’re looking forward to helping people understand how the bill could strengthen the state.

“The bill represents the best of policymaking,” Shah said. Protecting people from discrimination “isn’t a red or blue issue. It’s an Arizona issue.”