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Arizona bill on service for gays divides GOP

Democrats hope to exploit split in fall elections

PHOENIX — Governor Jan Brewer’s veto of a bill allowing businesses to refuse service to gay people exposed a fracture within the Republican Party between social conservatives and the GOP’s pro-business wing, a split that Democrats hope to turn into a midterm election campaign issue.

The Republican governor has made job creation and business expansion the centerpiece of her administration, and she was more than willing to disregard the wishes of social conservatives amid protests from major corporations such as American Airlines and Apple Inc. As a result, the Republican base was left dispirited, and opponents of gay marriage are struggling to find their footing after significant losses in the courts and state houses.

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‘‘It’s leading people to say: ‘We’re not sure where the Republican Party is on something as basic as economic freedom,’ ’’ said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action, a conservative group in Washington, that argued the proposal was aimed simply at allowing people to run businesses as they saw fit. ‘‘There certainly is a risk, especially as you head into the midterm elections, when the turnout of your base is essential.’’

Brewer vetoed the measure Wednesday night after Republicans ranging from Mitt Romney to her state’s two US senators urged her to reject the measure, which emerged from the GOP-controlled state Legislature. The bill was designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays or others who offend their beliefs. Opponents called it an open attack on gays that invited discrimination.

Gay marriage is increasingly accepted nationwide, and the Democratic Party already has been claiming that measures like the Arizona bill are a throwback to pre-civil rights era Jim Crow laws.

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‘‘Let’s be really clear: Jan Brewer’s veto of this bill was not exactly profiles in courage,’’ said Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. ‘‘She specifically referred to her concern being economic. This is one state in about 10 or 12 that this legislation is moving through the process, pushed by Republicans.’’

Following a series of court rulings striking down gay marriage bans in conservative states, several legislatures have considered bills to give more protection to businesses that turn away gay couples. But so far, Arizona is the only state where the legislation has reached the governor’s desk.

The measures are inspired by the cases of a New Mexico wedding photographer and bakers in Colorado and Oregon who separately refused service for gay weddings or civil unions and have been penalized by courts.

After Brewer’s veto, sponsors of similar legislation in Ohio said they would withdraw their bill.

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