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Several Arizona lawmakers backtrack on bill critics dub as anti-gay

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A trio of Republican Arizona state lawmakers urged a veto on Monday of controversial legislation decried by critics as anti-gay that would let businesses refuse service to customers when doing otherwise would violate their religious beliefs.

The three state senators, who initially voted in favor of the measure, said in a letter to Republican Governor Jan Brewer that the proposal had been mistakenly approved in haste and had already caused "immeasurable harm" to Arizona's national image.

"While our sincere intent in voting for this bill was to create a shield for all citizens' religious liberties, the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance," the senators wrote in letter, by state Senators Adam Driggs, Steve Pierce and Bob Worsley.

"These allegations are causing our state immeasurable harm," they wrote, in pressing for a veto. The measure, which passed the state Senate 17-13 in a party line vote, would have failed in the Senate had the three voted against it.

The bill drew national attention when it cleared the state legislature last week, with opponents saying it amounted to a license to discriminate against gays and others at a time when same-sex marriage activists have notched several court victories in recent months.

Some 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia now recognize gay marriage in a trend that has gained momentum since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that legally married same-sex couples nationwide are eligible for federal benefits.

Arizona is among more than 30 states that still ban gay or lesbian couples from marrying, by constitutional amendment, statute or both.

SINCERELY HELD RELIGIOUS BELIEF

Under the bill, a business would have a defense against a discrimination lawsuit if a decision to deny service was motivated by a "sincerely held" religious belief and if providing service would substantially burden the exercise of their religious beliefs.

The measure was transmitted to the governor's office on Monday, and Brewer has five days to veto it or sign it into law. She has not indicated what her decision will be.

"She plans to conduct a deliberate and careful review of the legislature's bill before making up her mind and acting," said Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder.

The measure is being pushed by the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, which helped write the proposal and says it has been wrongly characterized and aims at protecting the religious rights of all.

"It's a shame we even need a bill like this in America," Cathi Herrod, the group's president, said in a statement over the weekend. "But growing hostility against freedom in our nation, and the increasing use of government to threaten and punish its own citizens, has made it necessary."

She could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Joining a chorus of activists and politicians who have spoken out against the bill, U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, said in Twitter messages they hoped Brewer would veto it.

Several business groups also urged a veto, including the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Phoenix Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Leadership.

"We cannot support measures that could expose our businesses to litigation, nor do we want to send a message that our state is anything but an open and attractive place for visitors and the top talent that will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth," they wrote in a letter on Monday.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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