Arizona lawmakers again push anti-LGBTQ discrimination law

PHOENIX (AP) — A bipartisan group of Arizona lawmakers are again pushing a proposal that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity statewide despite repeated failures to even get a hearing because of opposition from social conservatives in the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Kate Brophy McGee and Democratic Rep. Daniel Hernandez on Thursday called for passage of a measure they say is needed to assure LGBTQ residents get the same protections as other citizens. They were joined at a Capitol news conference by business and religious leaders who said it was needed to ensure equality and keep businesses competitive.

Neil Giuliano, president of the Greater Phoenix Leadership business group, said the state’s failure to have laws ensuring LGBTQ residents are treated equally is affecting hiring and efforts to attract business.

“Look at the states around us that are competing in this region — California, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico. All of them already offer protection,” Giuliano said. “Arizona quite frankly needs to get with it, get on the program and do all we can with regard to talent acquisition and with regard to competitiveness for our business sector.”

That, however, is easier said than done. Similar legislation failed to even get a hearing in the Republican-controlled Legislature the past two sessions, and faces strong opposition from social conservative and religious freedom groups like the Center for Arizona Policy, a powerful force at the Capitol.

The proposal “takes an ax to religious freedom by amending Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act to allow government to ‘substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion’ with ‘non-discrimination’ laws,” CAP President Cathi Herrod wrote in a lengthy news release. She also said it could force health care providers to participate in abortions against their wishes or provide medications to minors or adults with “gender identity questions.”

“It essentially puts the demands of the LGBTQ community above those who exercise their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion,” she wrote.

She and Hernandez say it will overturn a 2019 state Supreme Court ruling that said the sincerely held religious beliefs of a business owner allowed them to refuse to provide service for a gay wedding.

Hernandez, an openly gay lawmaker who chairs the LGBTQ caucus, said it’s not just about social issues, but also about growing businesses.

“We are at a competitive disadvantage when we’re applying for things like hosting an NCAA Tournament, like hosting a big game, any of those tournament,” he said. “They look at what are your states, what are your cities doing to protect everybody, not just the people who are not LGBTQ.”

Republican Senate President Karen Fann said she hasn’t made a final decision but is trying to avoid controversial legislation during an election year. GOP House Speaker Rusty Bowers said he doesn’t support expanding protections to LGBTQ Arizonans, and would never support a bill overturning the Supreme Court precedent.

Hernandez and Brophy McGee acknowledged that they face an uphill battle getting the legislation passed. But Hernandez pointed to last year’s repeal of a 1991 Arizona law barring HIV and AIDS instruction in K-12 schools that “promotes a homosexual lifestyle” as a sign that there is hope.

Brophy McGee said she also never gives up hope, noting that there’s more support for the proposal that many fellow Republican lawmakers admit.

“At the end of the day as a Republican, I want to grow my tent,” she said. “I have a number of LGBTQ precinct committeemen in my legislative district who believe in Republican principles, Republican ideals, Republican values. It transcends politics.”