Arizona's "Religious Freedom" Bill in the Hands of Governor Brewer
By Matthew Hendley
The Arizona House of Representatives passed the anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bill, which now heads to Governor Jan Brewer for her approval.
Despite House Democrats putting up a strong fight against the bill, just three of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle voted against the bill, which the rest of the Republican majority was able to pass with a 33-27 vote.
The bill would expand the rights of businesses to make exercise-of-religion claims in court. Senate Bill 1062 sponsor Republican Steve Yarbrough specifically has likened his legislation to the case in New Mexico, in which a wedding photographer refused to photograph a lesbian couple's wedding. Yarbrough's bill would give the photographer a defense of exercising a "sincerely held religious belief," if that were an Arizona case.
Many of the arguments against the bill were compelling.
Democratic Representative Demion Clinco, who was just sworn in as a new legislator a couple weeks ago to fill a vacancy, spoke out against this bill, as the only openly gay member of the House. He said because of how he's been treated, including being assaulted in high school, he's spent most of his life downplaying that he's gay, and this bill certainly wouldn't help reverse that.
"I don't think this is what the founders intended [as religious freedoms], and to hide it behind religious freedom is an embarrassment to religions," Clinco said.
Democratic Representative Juan Mendez, the only openly atheist member of the Legislature, said he could foresee the possibility of atheists facing discrimination based on others exercising their alleged religious freedoms.
"This is not real freedom," Mendez said. "It is an insult to our founders and our state."
One of the bill's sponsor in the House, Republican Representative Eddie Farnsworth, defended the bill from criticism. He insisted the Democrats and the media were making this bill out to be something it's not.
Yet, Farnsworth's colleagues continued to bring up the textbook example of the reasoning behind the bill: the New Mexico photographer case. New Mexico law is a bit different in that it has a state law prohibiting businesses from discriminating against gay people. Although several cities, including Phoenix, have municipal ordinances that create this protection, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell suggested this law deliberately undermines those city ordinances.
"This is state-sanctioned discrimination, there's no doubt about it," Campbell said. "This bill will result in discrimination toward the LGBT community, there is no doubt about it in my mind -- none."
Democrat after Democrat blasted the law as discriminatory, and Representative Ruben Gallego, in protest of the bill, held up a sign he imagines might be seen at Arizona businesses if this bill passed, saying, "No gays allowed."
Meanwhile, Gallego and fellow Democratic Representative Mark Cardenas combined to offer 17 amendments to the bill -- much like their Senate colleagues had done the day before -- to make it clear that people can't discriminate against others in certain situations. All of the amendments failed.
Still, most on the Republican side maintained that the legislation -- pushed by the Christian Right group Center for Arizona Policy -- is about protecting a person's religious rights.
"We are trying to protect people's religious freedoms," Republican Representative Steve Montenegro said. "We want to prevent the government from forcing a person who is trying to start a business to sell out their religion for money."
Campbell noted that this legislation has been proposed in several other states, and Arizona remains the only state where it looks like the legislation could pass. He attributed it to legislators in other states realizing that the legislation "really does nothing but hurt people."
"In the future, people are going to look back on this bill, and they're going to laugh," Campbell said. "They're going to be disgusted."
Joining the Democrats in voting against the bill were Republican Representatives Ethan Orr, Kate Brophy McGee, and Heather Carter. The bill now heads to Governor Brewer. The Arizona Republic has already called on Brewer to veto the bill.
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