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New Mexico Republicans Propose Law Allowing Business Owners To Turn Away Gay Customers

Legislators in New Mexico are pushing a law that would allow business owners to refuse service on the basis of religious conviction, a move some critics say would “promote discrimination” against gay, lesbian and transgender people.

The New Mexico bill comes on the heels of several high-profile disagreements between gay couples and business owners that have made national headlines. In December 2015, the owners of Oregon's Sweet Cakes by Melissa paid a hefty $135,000 fine after refusing to bake a cake for a lesbian couple's wedding. Earlier this month, a New York appeals court ordered the owners of Liberty Farms to pay a $13,000 fine for violating state anti-discrimination laws when they told a lesbian couple they couldn't hold their wedding at the farm.

In New Mexico, lawmakers say they want to protect business owners in their state from suffering similar consequences. The bill, HB 55, would amend the state's human rights and religious freedom laws “to prohibit the application of any law that burdens the free exercise of religion" and "prevent discriminatory action by a person or a government agency in response to a person’s free exercise of religion," according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

“For instance, if a baker, being that they’re not the only baker in town, if they did not want to participate in a marriage ceremony that they didn’t agree with religiously, then that couple would go find a different baker,” Republican state Rep. David Gallegos of New Mexico told the newspaper.

Gallegos said Republican lawmakers were still working on the language in the proposed bill so that it's "not abusive towards gays and lesbians” but also offers legal protection to business owners who have deep religious convictions.

Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales, who is gay, said the proposal would set the state back after recent efforts toward promoting tolerance.

“It’s just the wrong type of legislation to have now, especially after the Supreme Court has already ruled,” Gonzales said at an event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It goes counter to what Dr. King advocated for when he talked about liberty and injustice.”

Gonzales was referencing a similar case in Albuquerque in which a wedding photographer refused to shoot a same-sex couple's wedding. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the owners of the photography studio, Jonathan and Elaine Huguenin, violated anti-discrimination laws by turning the couple away.

The bill faces opposition from groups like the ACLU of New Mexico and Equality New Mexico, an LGBT and civil rights advocacy organization.

“Freedom of religion does not mean we have a blank check to discriminate against people and hurt families,” Steven Robert Allen, policy director of the ACLU of New Mexico, said. “Discrimination isn’t just unconstitutional; it goes against the basic values of fairness and community New Mexicans hold dear.”

Fr. Rusty Smith, who leads St. Martin's Hospitality Center in Albuquerque, said in a Dec. 21, 2015, media release for Equality New Mexico opposing the bill that religion "shouldn’t be used to hurt people" or justify discrimination.

"Faith is at the center of my life, and freedom of religion is deeply important to me," Smith said. "But this legislation would allow businesses to refuse to serve those who don’t share their beliefs. That just doesn’t sit right with me."

Sources: Santa Fe New Mexican, Equality New Mexico / Photo source: Wikimedia Commons (2)

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