Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer in pressure cooker over 'anti-gay' bill (+video)

Arizona lawmakers passed a 'religious freedom' bill allowing businesses to turn away gay customers. Gov. Jan Brewer weighs economic impact as she decides whether to sign it.

By , Staff writer

The fact that doctors in the United States can refuse to perform abortions on religious grounds hasn’t eased the national backlash to an Arizona bill that would allow private business owners to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of “religious freedom” – a euphemism for what critics dub the “right to discriminate.”

Indeed, growing opposition to the bill passed Thursday by conservative Republicans lawmakers in Arizona has now put Gov. Jan Brewer in a tough spot as she decides in the next five days whether to sign it.

“It’s very controversial, so I've got to get my hands around it," Governor Brewer said Friday.

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Brewer, a conservative Republican who signed the much-debated and litigated “papers, please” anti-illegal immigration law in 2010, is an old hand at cultural controversy. But she has tried to focus more on economic expansion in her last year as governor. (She is term-limited.)

Even so, the 2010 immigration law could be framed in a business context, and businesses were involved in designing and commenting on what amounted to a state labor policy.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on the other hand, is different. The bill was written after the state Supreme Court in New Mexico, Arizona’s neighbor to the east, told a Christian wedding photography studio that it had to take pictures of a gay wedding if asked. In recent years, courts across the country have chided bakers, florists, and even wedding chapels for turning gays away on religious grounds.

As a result, Republicans in 10 states have introduced various forms of a “Christian shield” law, but most have been held up in conference. Until now, in Arizona.

State Republicans there have maintained the bill, which shields religious business owners from legal backlash if they turn away a homosexual customer, is but a “tweak” to laws in a state that already does not count gays as a protected class in its anti-discrimination statutes.

The legislation expands the state’s definition of “exercise of religion” to include mere observance and adds “business organization” to groups protected by laws guaranteeing the free exercise of religion.

“We are trying to protect people’s religious liberties,” Arizona State Rep. Steve Montenegro, a Republican, told US News & World Report. “We don’t want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if you are a small-business owner.”

Yet it’s hard to miss the bare optics, and the relationship of the Arizona bill to a broader national debate over gay marriage: Arizona is already one of 29 states that have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage in reaction to the growing legal and social acceptance of gay and lesbian legal unions, which come with anti-discrimination protections.

And even if Republicans are right, that the law is but a minor adjustment to existing protections, business interests in the state have suggested that the proposal is already a public relations disaster.

The Greater Phoenix Economic Council has reported that in the span of a day, four corporations scouting Arizona for expansion have raised reservations about their moves should the “religious freedom” bill become law with Brewer’s signature. Moreover, the extent of Arizona’s welcome to a panoply of Americans will be on the national radar next year, when the state hosts the Super Bowl.

"This legislation has the potential of subjecting the Super Bowl, and major events surrounding it, to the threats of boycotts," said Barry Broome of the Phoenix economic council, in a letter to Brewer.

Despite growing opposition to the proposal from gay advocates and business groups, there is also intense pressure for Brewer to go ahead and sign the bill, especially since it passed handily in both the House and Senate.

The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group that helped write the law, noted Friday that existing religious freedom statutes in Arizona have not been used to justify discrimination, and that those laws now need to be broadened “to ensure that in America people are free to live and work according to their faith,” as Josh Kredit, the group’s legal counsel, told The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Christian advocacy groups have lambasted state and federal courts for forcing those with deep convictions to do work that they feel contradicts their religious beliefs.

Cases involving bakers being told to bake wedding cakes for gay couples also wander into First Amendment free speech territory, since it remains unclear whether the state can actually compel artisans and craftsmen to create objects under religious protest.

The US Supreme Court will tackle a related matter next month when it considers whether religious business owners have to provide insurance coverage that includes contraception for their employees.

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