In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony. In Washington state, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party marking the wedding of two men.
In each case, the business owners cited their religious beliefs in declining to provide services celebrating same-sex relationships. And in each case, they were sued.
Now, as states weigh how to balance the rights of same-sex couples with those of conservative religious business owners, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona must decide whether to sign legislation that would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for denying service to same-sex couples.
The legislation, approved by lawmakers Thursday, immediately attracted national attention, with conservative religious groups welcoming it as a necessary form of protection for objectors to same-sex marriage, and gay rights groups denouncing it as a license for discrimination.
The measure comes at a time when the courts are grappling with how to define the religious rights of private businesses. The Supreme Court will hear two cases next month in which businesses are seeking exemptions from providing insurance coverage for contraception to their employees, citing the religious beliefs of the companies' owners.
"In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and the government shouldn't be able to tell us we can't do that," said Joseph La Rue, the legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that advocates for religious liberty and supports the measure passed by the state Legislature. "Faith shouldn't be something we have to leave inside our house."
But civil libertarians and gay rights advocates say there is a difference between protections for clergy and houses of worship that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage and the obligations of business owners that serve the general public.
"Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it's not a blank check to harm others or impose our faith on our neighbors," said Daniel Mach, who directs a program on freedom of religion and belief for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Arizona legislation. "Over the years, we as a nation have rejected efforts to invoke religion to justify discrimination in the marketplace, and there's no reason to turn back the clock now."
Brewer, who has taken no public position on the legislation that will reach her desk next week, is a Republican whose tenure has been punctuated by controversy and political discord over a tough measure on illegal immigrants, which was denounced from the left, and a Medicaid expansion, which was criticized by the right.
Last year she vetoed a similar religious freedom bill, arguing that it was a distraction from priorities lawmakers had yet to address, including the state budget. There are similar circumstances this year, as legislators have yet to act on proposed changes to the state's child welfare system, which has been plagued by a slow response to complaints of abuse and neglect.