PHOENIX — With a glaring national spotlight on Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds.
Her action came amid increasing pressure from Arizona business leaders, who said the bill would be a financial disaster for the state and harm its reputation. Prominent members of the Republican establishment, including the former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, sided with the bill's opponents, who argued that the measure would have allowed people to use religion to mask prejudice.
Brewer, 69, a Republican, announced her veto at a hastily called news conference, after spending the day in private meetings at the Capitol with opponents and supporters.
"I call them like I see them, despite the cheers and boos from the crowd," she said. She added that the legislation "does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona" and that it was "broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences."
The governor further castigated the Republican-controlled legislature, which passed the bill Thursday, for making it the first piece of legislation to reach her desk this year. Her priorities, she said, are a budget, economic growth and "fixing our broken child protection system."
Brewer cannot run for re-election because of term limits.
The bill was inspired by incidents in other states in which florists, photographers and bakers were sued for refusing to cater to same-sex couples. But it would have allowed much broader religious exemptions by business owners. A range of critics — who included business leaders and figures in both national political parties — said it was broadly discriminatory and would have permitted all sorts of denials of service, allowing, say, a Muslim taxi driver to refuse to pick up a woman traveling solo.
Supporters said the bill was needed to allow people to live and work by their religious beliefs.
"This bill is not about allowing discrimination," state Sen. Steve Yarbrough said during debate on the measure last week. "This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith."
Calls, emails and posts to Brewer's Facebook page streamed in by the thousands, many from people urging her to sign the legislation.
"Don't let them bully you, Jan," read one of them. "If we deny someone their religious beliefs or the right to do business with whom they choose, we truly are giving up more and more, all of us, gay or straight."
Brewer acknowledged the qualms that many people have about same-sex marriage and noted that society was undergoing many dramatic changes. "Religious liberty is a core American and Arizona value," she said, but "so is no discrimination."
Reactions of relief came swiftly. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who had urged a veto, said in a statement, "I hope that we can now move on from this controversy and assure the American people that everyone is welcome to live, work and enjoy our beautiful state of Arizona."
Even as she deliberated, the state began to lose business. The Hispanic National Bar Association said Wednesday that it had canceled plans to hold its annual convention of 2,000 lawyers here next year, citing the bill.
The National Football League, which had planned to hold the Super Bowl here next year, started actively exploring Tampa , its second-choice location, in case Brewer signed the bill, Sports Illustrated reported Wednesday.
Outside the Capitol, protesters held signs that read, "Civil rights trump religious wrongs." Inside, television cameras stood guard by the entrance to the governor's wing as volunteers from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights advocacy group, hauled in boxes and boxes of petitions holding 63,000 signatures asking for a veto.
Arizona is still struggling to repair its image and finances after the boycotts and bad publicity it endured following the passage of a stern immigration law in 2010, which gave police officers the right to stop people whom they suspected of being in the country illegally and made it a crime for illegal immigrants to hold jobs.
The state also faced a boycott almost 20 years ago after voters initially refused to recognize Martin Luther King's birthday as a state holiday. At that time, the state was also set to host the Super Bowl, but the NFL, looking to avoid controversy, moved the game to Pasadena, Calif.
Similar religious protection legislation has been introduced in several states, including Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Dakota.