Once again, Arizona is on the brink of taking a giant leap backward. This time it’s picking the wrong side in the fight for LGBT equality.
Both chambers of the Arizona Legislature recently passed a bill that would legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians on the basis of religion. Painted as a law to protect religious freedom, SB 1062 redefined “exercise of religion” and dramatically expanded the definition of a “person” to include “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.”
If Governor Jan Brewer signs this new bill into law, it would allow people and businesses with “sincerely held religious beliefs” to refuse to provide services or employment to anyone whose lifestyle is an affront to their religious beliefs.
The Arizona House passed the legislation after more than three hours of debate about religious freedom, discrimination, equality, and the measure’s potential negative economic impact. Repeatedly, Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, who introduced the House version of SB1062, defended the bill from attacks by Democrats, particularly Minority Leader Chad Campbell. A number of times, Farnsworth reminded the House that gays and Lesbians are not a protected class-- implying that that fact made discrimination OK. Farnsworth, Rep. John Kavanagh, and Rep. Steve Montenegro were the bill's strongest supporters, insisting that the intention of the bill to “protect” the religious people and businesses from being exposed to lifestyles that are against their religion. The vote fell largely along party lines. Every Democrat in the two chambers voted against it, joined by a total of three Republicans. (LD9 Rep. Ethan Orr, who has strong ties with the Chamber of Commerce, was one of the three Republicans who voted "no".)
Although opponents find the bill to be unacceptably anti-gay, it could be used to discriminate against other groups too, including atheists and others whose lifestyles may be considered outside of Arizona’s fundamentalist Christian mainstream.
Arizona’s not alone. Republican lawmakers in 10 states — Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Kansas, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, Mississippi, have also recently introduced similar bills clearing the way for religion-based discrimination against LGBT citizens.
Why the sudden outbreak of anti-gay laws? Is this a Hail Mary pass by the religious right to stop the progress of gay rights? Is this an attempt to stem the tide of gayness washing over our country?
In Arizona, the anti-gay law was promoted by the powerful Center for Arizona Policy, a fundamentalist Christian group that lobbies against reproductive rights and gay marriage. The Center and similar groups nationwide are members of Citizen Link, a branch of Focus on the Family The Arizona group is part of a right-wing network which promotes Christian values — including traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
The problem for Republican lawmakers, who now are facing a massive backlash over this vote, is that Arizona is a purple state being held hostage by a red state government, thanks to long-term gerrymandering. Arizonans — particularly those of us living in Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff— are much more open-minded and accepting of LGBT lifestyles than the Republican majority in the legislature.
Most of us oppose this new law and the widespread discrimination it could codify. Gay-friendly city ordinances already on the books in multiple cities would be overturned if the Brewer signs SB 1062.
Gay rights advocates and Democratic Party activists in Arizona are organizing protests and calling on our governor to veto this bill. A social media firestorm and major demonstrations are flaring, with more than 1,000 protesting at the state capitol in Phoenix and several hundred protesting in Tucson.
On social media, Republican legislators have been labeled homophobic “religious bigots.” Lawmakers are not the only targets of citizen wrath. Center for Arizona Policy and its president Cathi Herrod continue to be critized on social media. Standing firm, Herrod is calling on supporters to contact Brewer and urge her to sign the bill.
Fearing an economic backlash and potential Arizona boycott, both of Arizona’s U.S. Senators (John McCain and Jeff Flake), the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, and just about every major business group are joining progressives in urging a veto.
Some legislators who voted for SB 1062 are desperately trying to distance themselvesfrom the decision, while progressives are rejoicing at what they see as a major tactical error by the GOP. Of the six gubernatorial candidates vying to replace Brewer in November’s election, the sole Democrat, Fred DuVal, is the only one who has come out strongly against SB1062. Republican candidates Doug Ducey, Christine Jones, and Andrew Thomas all support SB1062, while the other two Republican candidates, Ken Bennett and Scott Smith, are trying to play both sides of the religious freedom fence.
Arizona’s state government is no stranger to this kind of controversy. It opposed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and its “papers please” anti-immigrant SB 1070 measure cost the state millions in lost revenue and sullied its image.
Despite nationwide protests and widespread calls for a veto, Brewer signed SB 1070 into law four years ago and won re-election in its wake. Will she side with business interests or the religious right on this bill?
According to last-minute reports, the governor is strongly considering a veto on this blatantly discriminatory bill. I for one am heartened at the swift and unequivocal response that’s putting pressure on Brewer to kill it.
UPDATE: Within an hour of this post, Brewer vetoed SB1062. Read about it here.
The original version of this article appears on Other Words.