Arizona vote moves gay rights into the mainstream

Why did Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer veto a 'religious rights' bill? The gay rights movement’s allies now include Chambers of Commerce, major businesses, and Republican lawmakers.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Demonstrators in Phoenix celebrate as they learn Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill designed to give added protection from lawsuits to people who assert their religious beliefs in refusing service to gays.

Mark this as the week when gay rights – including the push for same-sex marriage – became clearly and perhaps irrevocably mainstream.

Forty-five years after the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village protesting police raids on gay bars, then the first “Gay Pride” marches a few years later – events which shocked many Americans more used to homosexuality remaining in the closet – the movement’s newest allies are strictly conventional: Chambers of Commerce, major business groups, and Republican lawmakers.

That’s clearly behind Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer’s veto of a “religious rights” bill allowing commercial enterprises to refuse doing business with gay individuals and couples, including those shopping for wedding products and services. The message from opponents of the bill had been heard loud and clear, and it wasn’t just gay rights groups.

As the Gannett news organization put it online:

Apple, American Airlines, Marriott, and American Express strongly opposed the legislation, saying it would be bad for business. The Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee also called for a Brewer veto amid reports the NFL was looking at other sites for its 2015 championship game.

“The state’s Republican US senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake … and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney also urged Brewer to nix the measure.

“Five GOP lawmakers who had supported the bill said they regretted their votes because of the backlash and its potential impact on the economy and the state’s reputation.”

In a letter to Brewer, the heads of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Greater Phoenix Leadership, and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council wrote: “We are troubled by any legislation that could be interpreted to permit discrimination against a particular group of people in the marketplace…. The bill could also harm job creation efforts and our ability to attract and retain talent.”

The outcome in Arizona showed “there are economic consequences to discrimination,” Todd Sears, a former investment banker and the founder of initiatives focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality in business, told Politico.

“You’re seeing corporations weighing in on the side of LGBT inclusion and social justice in a way that you would not have seen 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Mr. Sears said. “This is about good business and discrimination and helping our employees be better at their jobs.”

It was a message quickly heard and acted upon by officials in other states considering similar “religious rights” legislation.

The president of the Kansas Senate announced this week that his chamber would not take up a similar bill in the Kansas House, the Washington Post reported, and Ohio legislators withdrew their measure.

Lawmakers in South Dakota and Utah tabled bills similar to Arizona’s, and a bill in Georgia is unlikely to make it out of committee. The sponsor of Tennessee's bill withdrew his sponsorship in early February.

Meanwhile, a federal judge in Texas ruled against that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. That makes six states where judges have so ruled. (The others are Virginia, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Utah, and California.)

Today, same-sex marriages are legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Given public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans – including a large majority of younger voters – now approving gay marriage, it seems likely that the number of such states will increase.

While conservative churches and political organizations have fought that trend, a new study of public attitudes over the past decade indicates the challenges to that cause.

“In the decade since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, Americans’ support for allowing gay and lesbian people to legally wed has jumped 21 percentage points, from 32 percent in 2003 to 53 percent in 2013, transforming the American religious landscape,” the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reported this week.

If anything, those who identify with a particular faith group are even more inclined to approve of gay marriage, the report finds. In addition to the 73 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans who favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry, majorities of Jewish Americans (83 percent), white mainline Protestants (62 percent), white Catholics (58 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (56 percent) currently support same-sex marriage.

At the same time, churches which oppose gay marriage are finding a negative impact regarding younger members.

“While many churches and people in the pews have been moving away from their opposition to LGBT rights over the last decade, this new research provides further evidence that negative teachings on this issue have hurt churches’ ability to attract and retain young people,” said PRRI chief executive officer Robert P. Jones. “Nearly one-third of Millennials who left their childhood religion say unfavorable church teachings about or treatment of gay and lesbian people played a significant role in their decision to head for the exit.”

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