House OKs Ariz. bill protecting licensed workers
PHOENIX (AP) In what supporters describe as a pre-emptive and protective measure, Arizona House lawmakers on Monday advanced legal protections for workers who deny services to potential clients on religious grounds.

Proponents acknowledge that there were no known incidents of faith-based discipline in Arizona but say the bill is a reaction to cases in states such as Michigan where a student counselor was disciplined after refusing to work with a gay client, saying she did so because of her religious beliefs.

Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, introduced the legislation, saying it's "fundamentally wrong" that if "you don't affirm the particular lifestyle, then your license is going to be at risk."

Critics say the bill endangers public safety.

Stuart Goodman, a lobbyist who represents several health-related state boards, says the measure allows "a licensee to commit unprofessional conduct simply because they can play a religious freedom component that may or may not exist."

The measure ensures Arizona workers would not lose their professional licenses for denying services on religious grounds.

The bill is a broader version of the so-called conscience clause, which many states including Arizona have recognized for pharmacists, physicians or other health care workers who decline to perform abortions or prescribe emergency contraceptives.

The measure now heads to the state Senate, where it is expected to pass.

Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed similar legislation last year, saying she feared it could protect misconduct by Arizona police who are followers of polygamous-sect leader Warren Jeffs and have been accused of refusing to enforce the law.

Deborah Sheasby, spokeswoman for the Center for Arizona Policy, a lobbying force behind the legislation, said the bill was necessary after "the different situations around the country."

"We wanted to make sure that does not become a problem in the other professions," she said. "We would apply this to other licensed professionals across the board."

The bill passed with an amendment adding that licensed workers can express religious beliefs but must still meet a "legal standard of care for the profession."

Sheasby said the amendment will help ensure a professional is still providing a basic level of service in addition to any faith-based care.

But Goodman said a "legal standard of care" was a hollow concept since the standard of care is something that constantly evolves.

"To create a statute based on a legal standard which doesn't have the ability to evolve doesn't provide protection to the public. It doesn't provide benefit to the licensee. It only provides benefit to the individual that violates act of professional conduct and claims it was held on a sincerely held religious belief."

Goodman said he wasn't aware of any instances in Arizona where someone in the health community was disciplined for exercising religious freedom.

"This goes far deeper than someone wearing a religious symbol or wanting to take a break for afternoon prayers," Goodman said.

Associated Press reporter Michelle Price contributed to this report.
Originally published April 16, 2012