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Arizona governor holds meetings over religious rights bill

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Ross D. Franklin / AP

In this Jan. 13, 2014, photo, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer speaks during her State of the State address at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix.

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014 | 3:41 p.m.

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer held a series of private meetings Wednesday with opponents and proponents of legislation adding protections for people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays, a proposal that has focused national attention on the state as business groups, gay rights supporters and even many fellow Republicans urged her to use her veto power.

Among those meeting with the governor was the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, who it was essentially his chance to give a closing argument. He defended the proposal and said his efforts were intended to extend the reach of the state's religious freedom law to businesses and corporations and allow those sued for discrimination to cite the law even when the government isn't a party. He said a veto would be disappointing.

"It's quality legislation, and there's no good reason at all as far of the merit of this bill to not sign it," Yarbrough said. "This bill does simply, basically, three things ... and that all it does. And it doesn't have anything to do with creating opportunities for discrimination that in any fashion is greater than what exists in the law currently. "

The governor faces a Saturday deadline to either sign Senate Bill 1062 or use her veto stamp. In a tweet from her official twitter account late Tuesday, the governor said: "I assure you, as always, I will do the right thing for the State of Arizona."

Brewer has been under increasing pressure to veto the proposal passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature. The proposal passed with support from all but three House Republicans and all 17 GOP state senators.

Three of those senators, however, reversed course Monday and called for the governor to veto the Senate Bill 1062. They were among opposition Republican lawmakers meeting with her Wednesday.

"Our position is clear - we think it is a mistake for Arizona to have this controversy, and we would like her to veto the bill," said Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa. "It's very frustrating to her to see what the state's going through. It's very painful. We've worked hard for five years to improve this state and get it past ...being on the front page of the paper. And this is very frustrating. This wasn't expected, and there's just a lot of damage being done that's unnecessary."

Worsley said he believes Brewer will veto the bill, although she made no commitments.

Democrats said they warned Republicans who voted for the bill that it was destined for trouble.

"We said this is exactly what is going to happen," said Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix. "You have a bill here that's so toxic it's going to divide this Legislature. It's going to be polarizing the entire state. And that's exactly what happened."

The bill allows any business, church or person to cite the law as a defense in any action brought by the government or individual claiming discrimination. Supporters call the bill a slight tweak to the state's existing religious freedom law, which does not extend protections to people based on sexual orientation.

Lawyers from across the political spectrum say much of the opponents' arguments that the bill opens the door to discrimination are overblown, but that has not eased the pressure on Brewer to act decisively.

The bill was pushed by the Center for Arizona Policy, a social conservative group that opposes abortion and gay marriage. The group says the proposal simply clarifies existing state law and is needed to protect against increasingly activist federal courts.

"What's happened is our opponents have employed a new political tactic, and it's working," said Cathi Herrod, the group's president. "Throw out the threat of a boycott to attempt to defeat a bill, and you might just be able to be successful."

Similar religious-protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, yet Arizona's plan is the only one that has passed. But on Wednesday, lawmakers in Ohio withdrew legislation that mirrors the Arizona bill. The efforts are stalled in Idaho and Kansas.

With the business community lining up against the proposal, Brewer could be hard-pressed to sign 1062. She has worked hard to return Arizona's economy to pre-recession levels with business-friendly incentives and tax cuts.

The bill has brought increasing talk of economic damage to the state. On Wednesday, the Hispanic National Bar Association said it was cancelling its 2015 convention in Phoenix because of the proposal, becoming one of the first groups to pull an event from that state.

President Miguel Alexander Pozo said the group's board of governors voted unanimously to withdraw, saying "it is imperative that we speak up and take immediate action in the presence of injustice." Last year, the Hispanic National Bar Association's convention drew about 2,000 people to Denver.

Among the businesses urging a veto are Apple Inc., which is opening a manufacturing plant in Mesa, American Airlines, Marriott and GoDaddy. Arizona U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake and former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney are also calling for a veto.

As Brewer held her meetings Wednesday, a federal judge declared Texas' ban on gay marriage unconstitutional, but he left it in place until an appeals court can rule on the case.

Judge Orlando Garcia issued the preliminary injunction after two gay couples challenged a state constitutional amendment and a longstanding law. He said the couples are likely to win their case and the ban should be lifted, but said he would give the state time to appeal to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals before do so

The ruling in Texas follows a string of rulings that have struck down gay-marriage bans in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia.

In Utah, attorneys for three gay and lesbian couples filed their opening brief late Tuesday with a federal appeals court, saying the state's same-sex marriage ban has "cemented discrimination" in the state against gays and their children. The 118-page argument comes in response to the opening brief filed earlier this month by Utah state attorneys who argued the 2004-voter approved ban should stand because the optimal environment for raising children is with a mother and father.

A similar suit challenging Arizona's same-sex marriage ban is in its early stages in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

Associated Press reporter Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Jesse Holland in Washington contributed.

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