So I will preface this by saying that I am only going by what the opponents of the bill are saying. If this bill is therefore passed, can someone explain to me how refusing service based on religious practices is any different from refusing service to someone just because they're black?
You're getting the effect/intentions behind the bill confused.
In essence this bill is about the person offering a service being able to refuse that service because the application of it would conflict with their religious beliefs.
The civil rights statutes and the like are about the person offering a service not
being able to refuse that service because the customer/patron is black.
Basically this bill is an attempt to avoid the civil rights acts and laws that mean someone can't discriminate against people; notably LGBT people.
It's probably worth bringing up an example of where an act like this might apply. In Northern Ireland there's been an ongoing case relating to a "gay wedding cake"
. In brief, a bakery was asked to create a cake which said "support gay marriage". Citing their religious beliefs they declined and have been taken to court by the Equality Commission because of it. I should note that it's not that the bakery refused to serve gay or LGBT people, they happily did so, but instead that they declined to create a cake with a message that they saw as running against their religious beliefs.
What the bill does is basically copy the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
, a federal act, into state law. The RFRA has been around for a while and one can see a fair amount of discussion on it in the thread here on the Hobby Lobby ruling
RFRA works by preventing the government from "substantially burdening" someone's exercise of religion. Fining a company/individual for doing something which they believe is in-line with their religious practices clearly represented a burden (most likely a substantial one) and so runs the risk of falling foul of it. The clear worry is that members of certain religions (notably Christianity in the US) will cite their religious opposition to LGBT and then try to use this act as a defence if challenged. However, the act does include exemptions; if it is in furtherance of a compelling government interest and there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest. On a federal level those exemptions have been used to deny claims relating to taxes (from a pacifist Mormon who objected to her taxes being used by the defence department) and university fees (from Christians who objected to their fees being spent to help support an abortion service).
State law is different from federal law and doesn't have to follow the same precedents but my gut tells me that this law isn't quite as draconian as people may fear. I think there is prima facie a compelling governmental interest in allowing people access to all services regardless of their sexuality and I struggle to think of a less restrictive way of achieving that then preventing people from discriminating on the basis of sexuality. As such I think that would fall firmly within the exceptions and any attempts to refuse service on the basis that a customer was LGBT wouldn't be able to use the RFRA as a defence. In addition, while the courts have been very, very hesitant about ruling on what constitutes exercise of religion or whether it is a reasonable belief, I think one may struggle to argue that refusing to serve LGBT people represents the reasonable exercise of a genuinely held religious belief; is it really exercising a religion to say that LGBT can't shop at your store? Somewhat ironically I think those who would argue it is could cite the various no-platforming and "shaming" initiatives by social justice advocates as evidence that serving or working with someone represents you supporting them and their lifestyle but I'm not convinced the court would support it.
More tricky are the examples such as the bakery one I mentioned above. In that case the bakery didn't refuse service on the basis of the customer's sexuality; as mentioned they're more than happy to serve LGBT people and if a cis-straight person had ordered the cake the same issue would have occurred. There the issue is whether a business should be required to create something with a message that goes against their religious beliefs. I suspect the RFRA would prevent that. Before we all leap into condemning it I think it's also worth considering what the opposite position could be. Should a bakery run and operated by Muslums be allowed to decline service when someone orders a cake saying "Muhammad was a paedo"/"Islam = Terrorism" or which has a representation of Muhammed on it? Should a Jewish bakery be forced to accept an order for a cake which says "The Jews Murdered Jesus!"? Should an atheist web designer be required to create a website saying that God created the world in six days? In a direct contrast to this, should a company owned by LGBT people be forced to create a product calling gay marriage an abomination? All are conceivable situations if someone cannot refuse service due to their personal beliefs (and I suspect all of those cited above could be classed as religious beliefs).