PHOENIX -- Gov. Jan Brewer said it may be time to consider extending the state's civil rights laws to gays.
"I do not believe in discrimination,'' the governor told Capitol Media Services Tuesday. "We are in the United States of America, and we have great privilege that is afforded to everyone.''
The governor noted while existing state laws bar discrimination based on race, religion or gender, those do not extend to sexual orientation. Brewer said it may be worth exploring whether the time has come to change that.
Her comments come several months after she made national headlines by vetoing legislation which would have expanded the rights of any business to turn away customers based on a claim that serving that person would interfere with a "sincerely held'' religious belief. That proposal led to charges it would codify in Arizona law the right to discriminate against gays.
Brewer said at the time SB 1062 appears to be a solution in search of a problem.
"SB 1062 does not address specific and present concern related to religious liberties in Arizona,'' she said in prepared comments. "I have not heard one example in Arizona where business owners' religious liberty has been violated.''
But Brewer also acknowledged that the legislation was unnecessary for a much simpler reason: It's already legal to refuse to rent to or serve gays in Arizona.
On Tuesday, Brewer said the question of whether Arizona should expand its anti-discrimination laws comes down to looking at the issue from the opposite perspective of SB 1062: Is there a real problem with discrimination that drives a need for such a change.
"That's something we don't see a lot of any more because of people's changing patterns of discrimination,'' she said.
The governor suggested that state lawmakers might want to hold hearings on the issue. "If it needs to be addressed it needs to be debated in the Legislature,'' Brewer said.
"Testimony needs to be presented,'' she continued. "Let the representatives of the people who have been elected by the populace of the state of Arizona determine and get it up to the governor.''
And what would she do with it?
"I don't know what would be in that bill or how they would write it,'' Brewer said. "But I certainly would evaluate it and do what I thought was the right thing to do for the state.''
Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona, said Brewer is deluding herself if she believes there is no discrimination in the state based on sexual orientation.
In fact, Wininger said, the governor is the cause of at least some of that: The governor signed -- and the state is defending -- a 2009 law to take away benefits from the domestic partners of state and university employees. The benefits had been granted under a change in personnel rules pushed through a year before by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Brewer already lost the first round in that case, with U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick at least temporarily barring the state from halting the benefits. He said it is a problem for the state to limit benefits like health insurance to married couples when, at the same time, it denied gays the right to marry to get those benefits.
Now the case is back before Sedwick to decide whether the state should be forever barred from denying benefits to current and future gay employees.
The state, in defending the 2009 law, has argued that some of the reason for rescinding the benefits to unmarried employees was financial: Some unmarried workers living together qualified for coverage, boosting the cost to taxpayers. But Wininger said cost is not a reason to discriminate.
"It's not fair to tell one group, 'We're going to insure you because you have the ability to get married,' and the other people, 'You can't have insurance and protect your families because we're going to prohibit you from marrying,'' she said.
But Aaron Baer, spokesman for the Center for Arizona Policy, said there is no need to expand existing anti-discrimination laws. He said there's a "big difference'' between barring discrimination on race, religion or gender and making it illegal to discriminate based on sexual orientation.
"I find it offensive to compare the civil rights and what was happening in the 60s and 50s and even beyond that to minorities ... with whatever people claim is going on with sexual orientation today,'' he said.
"It's impossible to tell what somebody's sexual orientation is unless they outright say it,'' Baer said. He also said it paves the way to all sorts of new lawsuits.
Baer, like Brewer, questioned whether there is really a problem.
"The reality is, we don't see a big need for this,'' he said. "There's no cases you could point to where we say, 'Oh look, this is a growing epidemic in Arizona that we have this happening,'' said Baer whose organization says it "promotes and defends the foundational values of life, marriage and family, and religious liberty.''
Wininger, however, said she can cite her own experience of being discriminated against while working for a major retail grocer, being denied equal salary and title with others similar positions elsewhere in the firm because a conservative Christian ran the firm's human resources department.
Baer conceded, though, that the lack of an anti-discrimination law in Arizona means things that have led to lawsuits and civil rights complaints elsewhere are legal here. That includes a photographer refusing to take pictures at a gay wedding and a baker refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding.