Arizona ‘religious freedom’ bill: Attack on gays or shield for some Christians?

Arizona lawmakers have passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow business owners – such as photographers or bakers – to cite religious beliefs to discriminate against gays.

Michael Schennum, The Arizona Republic/AP
Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, (D) Phoenix (r.), argues that House Bill 2153 would discriminate against gays and others on the House floor in Phoenix on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

Pushing back at judges who have told Christian business owners that they have to take photos and bake cakes for gay and lesbian weddings, Arizona lawmakers on Thursday sent a “Christian shield” bill to Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who has not yet said whether she’ll sign it into law.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs to discriminate against gays, is the first of 10 such proposed bills in Republican-controlled states. The Arizona legislation has sparked outrage from primarily gay rights activists and Democrats, many of whom say the proposal would enshrine some kinds of discrimination and has “no role in a modern society,” as state Senate minority leader Anna Tovar (D) said in a statement.

Religious conservatives say Democrats are being hyperbolic about the bill’s possible impact, suggesting instead that the real issue is about current law – and the courts – discriminating against the private beliefs of religious individuals.

Writ large, the bill is part of a pushback in conservative corners of America against the rapid legal and societal acceptance of gay marriage – the idea that gay couples should have every right, benefit, and privilege as a traditional dual-sex partnership has.

In fact, Arizona is one of 29 states that have passed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. While some of those bans have been struck down by federal judges, appeals are still active and ongoing.

The Arizona bill also comes amid a major debate in conservative circles about the political wisdom of religion-inspired laws and ideas that villainize and marginalize influential segments of the voting population.

Nevertheless, beneath the “discrimination” argument, the Arizona bill and similar proposals do push at other, fundamental issues that courts have struggled with when it comes to ordering artisans how to conduct their business. The Constitution’s guarantees of freedom of religion, as well as speech, have come into play when deciding the point at which those guarantees clash with the constitutional right to equal treatment.

One aspect that judges have wrestled with is freedom of expression, and whether the government can order artists and craftsmen (whether photographers or bakers) to create objects against their wishes and beliefs.

In just the past few years, a Mennonite bistro in Iowa, a Kentucky art gallery, and a New Mexico photography shop have had to defend themselves in court against discrimination complaints from gay couples.

In reaction to cases in Colorado and elsewhere that have gone against business owners who refused to cater gay weddings, Christian activists have argued that what’s at stake is “the fundamental freedom of every citizen to live and work according to their beliefs,” as Jordan Lorence, a senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told The New American magazine in December.

Critics, however, argue that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would have far more detrimental impacts, largely because they say it would make it easier for individuals and for-profit businesses to bypass workplace regulations as long as they cite religion as their reason. Indeed, legal experts say the bill is written in such a way as to make almost any discrimination based on religious beliefs permissible in Arizona.

“We’re telling [gays], ‘We don’t like you. We don’t want you here. We’re not going to protect you,’ ” House minority leader Chad Campbell (D) told the Associated Press.

Arizona conservatives, meanwhile, suggest such reaction is overblown, if only because turning away any paying customer goes against most business owners’ instincts – especially if it could cause backlash and affect business.

Rep. Eddie Farnsworth (R), who sponsored the bill, said,  “We’re making some tweaks [in Arizona] because of what’s been going on in other states where people have been punished for their beliefs.”

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