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Was 'religious freedom' bill really a risk for Arizona's Jan Brewer?

TUCSON — When the Arizona Legislature passed a bill to grant greater protection to businesses that refuse service to gays and others for religious reasons, it appeared the move had put Republican Gov. Jan Brewer between a rock and hard place. How could she risk alienating conservative supporters and veto a bill passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature?

Last Friday, a day after the Legislature gave SB 1062 final approval, Brewer acknowledged on CNN that the bill was a “very controversial piece of legislation. We know that. We know that it’s failed in a lot of states across the country.”

Brewer gave no indication how she would handle what supporters described as a “religious freedom” bill. She said she would study the issue.

So she studied.

In fact, David Liebowitz, a political consultant in Phoenix, suggested that Brewer was holding off making a decision to let opposition to the bill build.

“As long as the context is trending in your favor, let it build,” said Liebowitz, who worked in Brewer’s 2010 election campaign.

And with each passing day, opposition did indeed build. At first it came from predictable sources — gay rights groups and Democrats expressing their displeasure, often via Twitter. Rocco DiGrazia, who owns Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria in Tucson, created a viral sensation when he posted a photograph of a sign he’d placed in his restaurant’s window: “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.”

But soon others spoke up, reflecting growing tolerance of gays in American life and — in Arizona — the fear of economic boycotts like the ones launched after the state passed a tough anti-illegal immigration bill. Business groups spoke up against SB 1062, as did Mitt Romney, the GOP's standard-bearer in 2012. Even three legislators who voted for the measure backtracked and urged a veto.

Opposition from high-profile members of Brewer's party — including Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake — helped create a context that wouldn’t alienate her from the GOP and eventually help shield her from the repercussions of a veto, Liebowitz said.

McCain, it’s worth remembering, vigorously opposed repeal of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, which prevented gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military. When the Senate voted to ditch "don’t ask, don’t tell" in 2010, McCain said, “Today is a sad day.”

By this week, there were even suggestions that the Super Bowl, scheduled to be held in Arizona in 2015, might go elsewhere.

It was hardly surprisingly, then, when Brewer announced Wednesday evening that she had vetoed SB 1062.

McCain was among those applauding. “I appreciate the decision made by Gov. Brewer to veto this legislation,” McCain said in a statement. “I hope we can move on from this controversy and assure the American people that everyone is welcome to live, work and enjoy our beautiful state of Arizona.”

Outside the Capitol, protesters held up signs after her veto message: “Thank you Governor Brewer. Arizona is open for business for everyone.”

The risk presented by SB 1062 wasn’t such a big risk after all.

Of course, not everyone greeted Brewer’s move warmly. The state’s four Roman Catholic bishops had urged people to “politely ask” the governor to sign the bill. The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group that helped craft the bill, called it “a sad day.” Radio host Rush Limbaugh said the governor was “being bullied by the homosexual lobby in Arizona and elsewhere.”

In her veto message, Brewer addressed not just SB 1062 but other issues confronting the state, obliquely chiding the Legislature for not focusing on pressing issues.

Brewer reminded lawmakers that she had said earlier that her main priorities were passing a responsible budget and fixing a problem plaguing the state’s child protective services system.

“Instead, this is the first policy bill to cross my desk,” she said.

She went on to say that the bill “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want. Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value; so is non-discrimination. Going forward, let’s turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans.”

Brewer never directly addressed the possible economic repercussions of SB 1062, but as the bill was debated over the last week, concern about boycotts seemed an ever-present, nagging worry.

The Borowitz Report captured the concern in a satirical headline: “Arizona Confronting Awkward Realization That Gay People Have Money, Buy Stuff.”

Although Brewer may have gotten away somewhat unscathed by SB 1062, the state may not have fared as well.

Barrett Marson, who heads a public relations outfit in Phoenix, said, “Gov. Brewer may have saved the Super Bowl. But it doesn’t change the fact Arizona lost the image bowl of 2014.”

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Twitter: @thecindycarcamo

steve.padilla@latimes.com 

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