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Posted by: Maricopa Lawyers on Jun 6, 2013

The Arizona Senate has passed three bills Wednesday that aim to lower property taxes for religious institutions and make it easier for some organizations to sue over the First Amendment. This decision has been met with backlash by civil liberties and secular groups who believe that Arizona lawmakers are violating the U.S. constitutions imperative to separate church and state.

In March it did not appear the bills would pass.

Arizona’s Republican majority passed the measures despite opposition by Democratic legislators with little debate. The bills were supported by the powerful Center for Arizona Policy, which has a history of influencing conservative lawmakers in the state.

Opponents of the laws argue that religious institutions should not receive special privileges that are not available to all residents of Arizona. Democrats claim that the bills are a form of legal discrimination and will have detrimental effects on the battle to extend equal rights to the gay and secular communities.

Senate Bill 1178 would allow people to sue over potential violations of religious freedoms. The measure passed with a 17-11 vote and will go to Governor Jan Brewer for approval, which is expected. The GOP-led House passed the bill last week in a 32-24 vote.

Bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Yarbrough, made it clear the bill would not expand what people can claim a religious exemption or change the legal tests that courts use to test religious freedom cases. Secular groups have argued that Yarbrough and the Center for Arizona Policy have underplayed the bills far reaching scope stating that people can break nearly any law and cite religious freedom. They have argued that business owners could deny services to gay couples under the blanket of religious liberty.

House Bill 2446 would allow for churches to avoid paying property taxes on vacant land and was passed in another 17-11 vote. Opponents of measure have argued that swindlers could claim to be a religious institution and hold onto vacant property until it is economically advantageous to sell the land.