MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer is being pressured to veto a bill that would allow business owners in the state to deny service to gays and lesbians. To deny service, the business owner has to have sincerely held religious beliefs. That's the legislation's wording. It's become so controversial that even some lawmakers who voted for it are now regretting it.
NPR's Ted Robbins has more.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Equal rights.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When do we want it?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What do we want?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Equal rights.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The protests against the bill began as soon as it passed Arizona's Republican-controlled legislature. This one was outside the state capitol in Phoenix. Protests have continued. Gay rights supporters started it. Arizona's two U.S. senators both tweeted that Governor Brewer should veto the bill. Arizona is, again, in the cultural crosshairs.
JAY MICHAELSON: We're outside of just the realm of law and we're in the realm of public values. And the question is whether it's an American value or not to say certain people can't sit at the lunch counter.
ROBBINS: That's Jay Michaelson, who studies religious freedom for the progressive Political Research Associates. He says a number of other states considered and rejected laws similar to Arizona's. Georgia is up next. The Arizona law would allow business owners to refuse service to gays and lesbians if the owner's religion says homosexuality is wrong. But Jay Michaelson says the bill could affect virtually anyone who deals with a business owner claiming religious protection.
MICHAELSON: And, in fact, this law was so broad that it could cover anybody. So if I'm a fundamentalist Christian who holds Jews responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, I could put a sign saying no Jews allowed in my hotel or my restaurant or my sports stadium for that matter.
ROBBINS: Doug Napier sees it precisely opposite. Napier is with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is trying to get similar bills passed across the country.
DOUG NAPIER: This is a human dignity bill. It's a human rights bill. It's an anti-discrimination bill, so people of faith have a safe place in Arizona. That's all it is.
ROBBINS: The Arizona bill took off as a result of a court decision in neighboring New Mexico last year. That state's Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photographer could not refuse to take pictures of a gay couple. The Arizona law was intended to protect business owners from similar lawsuits. But business owners - big business owners - have now come out against the bill. Even the National Football League has weighed in, saying it's following the issue as Glendale, Arizona, prepares to host next year's Super Bowl. Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who is running for Arizona governor, says he's hearing from other concerned mayors around the country.
MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: The perception was out there regardless of what the intention was. The perception was out there, and it was not a good perception of Arizona.
ROBBINS: Arizona is still getting over perception problems from its anti-illegal immigration law passed in 2010, and it's in the midst of a fragile economic recovery, which is why both U.S. senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, came out against the new bill. Here's Senator McCain on CNN.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: This is going to hurt the state of Arizona's economy and frankly our image.
ROBBINS: It may have begun as a religious rights issue, but the Arizona bill has quickly become a civil rights issue and a business issue. In the last few days, even three Republicans who voted for the bill have said they made a mistake. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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