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Arizona House Approves Bill Further Protecting Religious Freedom

On Wednesday, the Arizona House passed a measure which would offer further protection for the religious liberties of state citizens.

Senate Bill 1178, which passed the Arizona House of Representatives on Wednesday with a 32-24 vote along party lines and reportedly with little debate, seeks to strengthen the language of the already existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The bill seeks to strengthen religious freedom in the state in several ways, predominately by giving all denominations the ability to file a lawsuit over an "impending" religious liberty violation, as opposed to a violation which has already taken place.

Additionally, the bill "expands the definition of exercise of religion to specifically include both the practice and observance of religion."

Those supporting the bill argue that its strict language is necessary to protect the religious freedoms of Arizona citizens.

For example, the bill would protect religious leaders who refuse to perform same-sex marriage in the state from discrimination lawsuits, although it is important to note that same-sex marriage in Arizona is not currently legal.

Senate Bill 1178 is "necessary to update Arizona's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and to close loopholes that might jeopardize a person's free exercise of religion in Arizona," the Center for Arizona Policy, which supports the bill, said in a statement on its website.

The organization argues that it is necessary for the state's lawmakers to approve the stricter language found in the bill "due to the growing hostility towards religious freedom in our nation."

"Persecuting individuals or groups for their religious beliefs creates second-class citizens who are seen as less valuable because of their faith," the group continued.

The bill "makes important clarifications and updates to ensure religious liberty is protected to the maximum extent possible in our state," the pro-family, pro-religious liberty group added.

Those opposed to the bill argue that it could hurt the state's small business community and result in a barrage of lawsuits from those arguing that their First Amendment rights are being violated.

An initial version of the bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, included more expansive provisions, including allowing people to sue the government regarding a religious freedom violation, even if the government wasn't involved.

Although the initial version of the bill was modified to narrow its provisions and include more specific language, many remain critical of the bill's effect on small businesses.

"I'm still concerned," Rep. Chad Campbell (D-Phoenix) told the Az Capitol Times of the revamped bill, which no longer allows a defendant to sue the government over an attack on religious freedom, regardless of whether the government is involved.

 "While you may not be encouraging litigation … I think you are opening the door for litigation that is probably unnecessary and burdensome, especially for small businesses," Rep. Campbell added.

Senate Bill 1178 will now go to a Senate vote.

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