Arizona passes 'anti-gay' bill allowing business owners to refuse service on religious grounds

Businesses will be allowed to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers by asserting their religious beliefs if the bill is signed next week

The state of Arizona has passed a controversial bill that would allow business owners to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers on religious grounds.

Hundreds joined rallies and protests in the cities of Phoenix and Tucson on Friday, a day after the bill was approved.

The bill, which the state House of Representatives passed by a 33-27 vote Thursday, will now go to Republican Governor Jan Brewer. She is expected to make a decision as to whether she will sign the bill next week.

Ms Brewer does not comment on pending legislation, but she vetoed a similar measure last year. It is not clear whether she will support or reject this plan.

Those who support the bill argue it protects First Amendment rights for expressing religious beliefs. But Democrats have said the law would clearly allow for discrimination against gays.

The bill is backed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. "We see a growing hostility toward religion," said Josh Kredit, legal counsel for the group.

Opponents have raised scenarios during heated debates in which gay people in Arizona could be denied service at a restaurant or refused medical treatment if a business owner thought homosexuality was not in accordance with his religion.

One lawmaker held up a sign that read “NO GAYS ALLOWED” in arguing what could happen if the law took effect, drawing a rebuke for violating House rules.

All but three Republicans in the House backed the bill Thursday evening. The Senate passed the bill a day earlier on a straight party-line vote of 17-13.

Arizona's voters approved a ban on same-sex marriage as a state constitutional amendment in 2008. It is one of 29 states with such prohibitions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal judges have recently struck down bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, but those decisions are under appeal.

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