BY BOB CHRISTIE
PHOENIX -- The Arizona Legislature gave final approval to legislation that allows business owners asserting their religious beliefs to refuse service to gays, drawing backlash from Democrats who called the proposal "state-sanctioned discrimination" and an embarrassment.
The 33-27 vote by the House Thursday evening sends the legislation to Republican Gov. Jan Brewer and puts Arizona back at the forefront of a polarizing piece of legislation four years after the state enacted an immigration crackdown that caused a national furor.
Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in Ohio, Mississippi, Idaho, South Dakota, Tennessee and Oklahoma, but Arizona's plan is the only one that has passed. The efforts are stalled in Idaho, Ohio and Kansas.
Republicans stressed that the bill is about protecting religious freedom and not discrimination. They frequently cited the case of a New Mexico photographer who was sued after refusing to take wedding pictures of a gay couple and said Arizona needs a law to protect people in the state from heavy-handed actions by courts and law enforcement.