States Weigh Legislation to Let Businesses Refuse to Serve Gay Couples

ATLANTA — As it looks increasingly likely that the Supreme Court will establish a nationwide right to same-sex marriage later this year, state legislatures across the country are taking up bills that would make it easier for businesses and individuals to opt out of serving gay couples on religious grounds.

Many states are now reliving a version of events that embroiled Arizona in February 2014, when Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to use their religious beliefs as a legal justification for refusing to serve gay customers.

The resurgent controversy is fueled in part by a deep anxiety among many evangelicals and other conservatives that the Supreme Court will makesame-sex marriage legal in all 50 states after it takes up the matter in April.

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“The L.G.B.T. movement is the main thing, the primary thing that’s going to be challenging religious liberties and the freedom to live out religious convictions,” said State Senator Joseph Silk, an Oklahoma Republican and the sponsor of a bill in that state. “And I say that sensitively, because I have homosexual friends.”

As in Arizona last year, some of the new bills are already experiencing pushback from businesses and prominent conservatives who are concerned that they might lead to boycotts or harm their states’ reputations. And gay-rights groups say the bills would enshrine discrimination.

In Arkansas, a so-called conscience protection bill was scuttled in the Judiciary Committee of the State Senate on Feb. 25, a day after the homegrown retail giant Walmart released a statement arguing that the bill would send “the wrong message about Arkansas, as well as the diverse environment which exists in the state.”

Supporters of the proposal, which the State House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved, said they might introduce a new version this session.

In Georgia, powerful business interests helped kill similar legislation last year. Opposition to two similar bills remains strong among a portion of the state’s elite, who are sensitive to the perceptions that Southern states, in particular, can be havens of intolerance.

“What you have to be careful about is making sure you don’t conform to those perceptions,” said former Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat. “That’s the reason this bill is so dangerous.”

The Georgia Senate approved a version of the legislation on Thursday afternoon by a vote of 37 to 15.

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