Within hours of Arizona's Republican-dominated Legislature's approving a measure that established a legal defense for business owners to discriminate based on a "sincerely held religious belief," thousands of gay-rights advocates flocked to the lush green lawn at the state Capitol in Phoenix.
It was February 21, and they united to demand that Governor Jan Brewer veto Senate Bill 1062, the so-called "Religious Freedom" bill.
Someone in the pack of protesters yelled: "What do we want?!"
"Equal rights!" the congregation shouted back.
"When do we want it?"
The verbal volley continued, as did rousing impromptu speeches.
"You have states in this country that recognize same-sex marriage . . . and what does Arizona do? We go backward in time!" Senator Steve Gallardo roared into the crowd surrounding him. "It is time for us to send a loud message to every member in the Legislature [who] voted for these hateful bills . . . We are not going to stand around and watch this type of discrimination . . . targeting the LGBT community."
Protesters gathered at the Capitol daily to decry what quickly was dubbed anti-gay legislation.
Brewer's veto didn't come until February 26 -- and as she pondered her decision, Arizona was publicly shamed daily by news outlets and political pundits across the country and internationally. Even right-wing commentators on Fox News called the bill "political overreach" and likened it to old Jim Crow laws in the South that discriminated against African Americans.
It didn't take much political courage for Brewer to reject the powerful lobby of the religious right. She was urged to do so by fellow Republicans (including both of Arizona's U.S. senators), faced the state's potential loss of the Super Bowl in 2015, and received extreme pressure from the business community, including from corporate giants like Apple, the National Football League, Verizon, and American Airlines.
At the end of the day, Brewer did not publicly buy claims that business owners' religious freedoms were jeopardized.
"Senate Bill 1062 does not address a specific or present concern related to religious liberty in Arizona. I've not heard of one example in Arizona where a business owner's religious liberties has been violated," Brewer stated at a press conference, moments after her veto. "The bill is broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences."
Outside, as word of Brewer's veto spread across the lawn, jubilant cheers erupted from the throng of protesters -- they shed tears, embraced, and pumped fists in the air.
Although the proposed law never identified any specific group by name, its timing and testimony from advocates left no doubt about the bill's intention.
Consider that it was first rolled out in 2013 on the heels of Phoenix's expanding a city law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on an individual's sexual orientation or gender identity.
(Brewer unceremoniously vetoed that state bill, not on its merits, but over a political fight with her Republican cohorts in the Legislature.)
Lawmakers justifying the resurrected bill cited a handful of incidents across the country in which business owners were sued for refusing to provide services to gay couples. One notable case was that of a New Mexico photographer who refused to take pictures of a gay commitment ceremony because, she said, it violated her religious convictions.
A human relations commission in that state determined that the photographer engaged in discrimination against the couple and ordered her to pay their attorney fees of nearly $7,000. The courts upheld the commission's findings, and the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet determined whether to hear the case.
Such poster cases sparked conservative lawmakers to introduce bills similar to Arizona's in other states, including Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Oregon, Hawaii, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
Gay-rights advocates and sympathetic community leaders have worked tirelessly to capitalize on the furor wrought by the right-wingers.
For instance, Why Marriage Matters Arizona, a public education campaign to grow support for gay marriage, is reminding metro Phoenix that even though SB 1062 is dead, same-sex couples are "still not free."
Lambda Legal has filed a lawsuit against Arizona on behalf of several same-sex couples challenging that the state does not permit same-sex couples to marry, nor does it recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages.
Gay-rights organizers are planning a rally at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 29, at the Sandra Day O'Connor Courthouse, and community activists are mulling ballot initiatives to establish the same civil rights protections for gays, lesbians, and transgenders that other Arizonans already enjoy.
It will not be an easy battle in Arizona, a state whose voting majority always has relished draconian laws, such as SB 1070, written to have the effect of driving out unwanted undocumented immigrants without regard to U.S.-born family members left behind.
At the same time, state lawmakers have rejected anti-discrimination measures that would protect people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. They've let languish several bills aimed at strengthening anti-bullying laws. And some legislators have directly targeted transgenders with proposals to make it a crime for them to use public bathrooms befitting their sexual identities.
Indeed, with bills like SB 1062, they have attempted to provide legal cover for business owners, doctors, attorneys, and counselors who want to refuse service to gays simply because they are gay.
Proponents of such laws argue that they are seeking only to protect their religious freedom, but the president of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy clearly explained the intent of such laws to a roomful of like-minded colleagues -- a time when she had no reason to posture.
"I'm a licensed attorney with the state of Arizona," said Cathi Herrod, speaking to the 2012 National Religious Freedom conference in the nation's capital. "Two different times our State Bar of Arizona tried to enact provisions that would prohibit me from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression -- both in the oath I'm required to take and in my ethical rules. Obviously, that type of provision would violate my religious beliefs."
As Arizona lawmakers persist in cloaking discrimination with religious freedom -- plus resist cultural changes softening America's attitude toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens -- Phoenix and other Arizona cities (including Flagstaff, Tucson, and Tempe) not only are embracing cultural changes, they are propelling them.
Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, says officials in these cities want to "do the right thing . . . and deeply understand that inclusiveness helps attract a wide range of people to live there, which attracts businesses and grows the economy."
Part of the driving force behind Phoenix's support for the LGBT community has been Mayor Greg Stanton and his wife, Nicole. They were named 2012 Man and Woman of the Year by Echo Magazine, a bi-monthly publication aimed at Phoenix's LGBT community.
For Nicole Stanton, the fight is a personal one that goes back to her childhood in Coalville, Utah.
Nicole France Stanton, the Phoenix first lady most engaged in social issues in the city's history, advocated for progressive changes even before her husband was elected mayor in 2010.
"I want to create the world that I want for my children, who obviously are my top priority," Nicole, mother to Trevor, 7, and Violet, 3, says in an interview. "I really want them growing up, thinking better, knowing you can marry whomever you want to marry -- and maybe by the time they're ready for that, it will be a reality."
Although it is usually Mayor Stanton who is front and center on the city's political stage, Nicole has stepped into the spotlight to raise awareness about equal rights for gays and transgenders, bullying, and HIV/AIDS.
Her hometown, Coalville, is a small community about 45 miles from Salt Lake City that cleaved to its high school football team as much as it did to its Mormon religion.
She recalls how tough it was for her brother, Dion France, growing up in the ultra-conservative town where, with a population of just 1,000 people, everyone knew everyone else's businesses.
Her big brother never had a serious girlfriend. He preferred drama club, art classes, and the debate team over sports. He once spoke to the local school board about the disparity in funding between football and other after-school programs -- with tragic results.
The football coach told his players that France was trying to steal money from their program, inciting a group of boys to corner the young man at a local gas station and beat him with a crowbar.
"My parents went down to the school and said it wasn't right. But nothing happened. They didn't know their rights and just felt like they should go along to get along," Nicole says. "Nobody knew he was gay at that time. But people knew he was different. The kids in school called him Fairy France, would chase him home, would throw rocks at him, stuff him in a school locker."
As he got older, the bullying and discrimination didn't subside. Nicole says he was fired from a job at a car dealership for "stealing a pen" -- only she believes it was because they suspected he was gay.
He only came out to his parents when he went to college.
"From a moral and religious perspective, my parents felt this was a very big deal. No one in the town was openly gay," she says. "And my mom was a devout Mormon." France moved to California to escape his suffocating hometown and to search for acceptance. In 1989, he was diagnosed with HIV and moved back home.
"It was gruesome. I watched what was happening to my family. My mom needed the church, but members were told that they couldn't come by," Nicole says. "She had a hard time accepting that my brother was gay. But by the time he contracted HIV, my mom didn't care. She said she'd rather have a gay son than a dead son. She took care of him."
He was 28 years old when the died on December 4, 1991.
"I saw the discrimination he endured firsthand," she says. "That's why this fight for equality is so important to me."
When lawmakers approved SB 1062, she posted on Facebook: "To my LGBT family, I am so sorry. Keep your heads up, and together we will keep fighting for equality. This is not over." Nicole is no stranger to fighting for justice. As an experienced commercial-litigation attorney for Quarles and Brady, her legal battles have garnered significant recognition: she has been named one of the best lawyers in America and one of the 50 most influential women in Arizona business.
In December, the national firm promoted her to managing partner of its Phoenix office, where she oversees about 100 attorneys.
Despite an already packed work and family schedule, which starts before 6 a.m. on most days, she is co-chair of "Night for Life," an annual May fundraising gala for the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS; she founded Stop Bullying Arizona, a nonprofit organization, to stamp out daily harassment some students endure on and off campus and online; and she speaks regularly on panels and at events to raise awareness about bullying and the plights of children.
And on this front, she has battled Christian conservative groups that have stymied efforts to end bullying by dismissing them as part of a "gay agenda."
Such organizations have blocked attempts to get laws passed that would toughen anti-bullying laws, provide protection for LGBT youth, or provide training for educators in how best to deal with bullying, including how to recognize signs that a child might be suicidal.
"Utah has been more progressive on anti-bullying measures," she says. "We tried for two years to get anti-bullying bills passed in the [Arizona] Legislature. They didn't go anywhere. It's always troubled me that people will forgo protecting all children just so gay kids aren't protected."
Despite the obstacles, she forges ahead -- working with the Phoenix Mercury on public-service announcements recorded by players to educate the community about bullying. She also hopes to collaborate with Arizona State University to create an institute on bullying for Arizona and the Southwest. Among her goals is ensuring that prevention programs offered at schools are effective and have measurable success.
"I'm not going to be distracted by these sideshows," she says of state lawmakers trying to push their anti-gay agenda.
Arizona became a national sideshow while Governor Brewer pondered vetoing the anti-gay measure. (Cathi Herrod's religious-based organization had consulted with Brewer's staff over 1062's language, which signaled that the governor was not opposed to it from the start.) In the end, Brewer's veto was delicious to the LGBT community and its supporters. It turned out that 1062 had the opposite effect to what its creators intended: It actually increased support of the gay community's signature issues.
A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling after Brewer's veto found that Arizona voters agreed overwhelmingly with her decision. The poll revealed that 66 percent were opposed to SB 1062, compared to 22 percent in favor of it.
Beyond that, the poll discovered that -- for the first time -- more Arizonans supported legalizing gay marriage in the state than opposed it.
Of those polled, 49 percent supported gay marriage, compared to 41 percent against it. In 2011, 44 percent of those surveyed wanted to legalize gay marriage, and 45 percent did not. Equality Arizona, an advocacy group for LGBT rights, is organizing a march at the end of this month and reports that hundreds of people already have signed up to participate.
To mobilize others, Phoenix's Maria Ramos shared her story in a guest column posted on the website Why Marriage Matters Arizona.
"My wife, Amanda, and I are still treated as legal strangers in Arizona -- despite our years of commitment," Ramos wrote. "And although we've built our lives and are raising a son here in Arizona, we're still denied the tools and security we need to protect our family. In Arizona, my family still isn't free -- and it's time to change that."
Activists with various LGBT groups are considering asking voters to approve basic legal protections for gay and transgender residents. Arizona refuses to approve these rights, even though others are protected from discrimination in public employment, public education, and public contracting on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.
"The governor said in her speech that nondiscrimination is a core value in Arizona. We need to take a look at that. There are a number of state statutes that can be changed," says Rebecca Wininger, president of Equality Arizona's board of directors. "And the legislative session isn't over. There are other bills that are concerning to us, and we have to be diligent to make sure they don't get through."
Once such bill would allow anyone in Arizona who can perform a marriage ceremony -- from a priest to a rabbi to a court magistrate -- to legally refuse to do so based on religious beliefs.
The measure is intended to reinforce religious rights in the wake of bans on gay marriage getting overturned in several states -- most recently in Texas.
Jan Brewer's veto of SB 1062 has energized all-but-dormant progressive politicos in Arizona. Robbie Sherwood, a political consultant and Democratic Party operative, says the challenge in a red state like Arizona is convincing voters that they have a pressing reason go to the polls, especially in mid-term elections.
This bill did that in a big way, he says.
"It politicized, for the first time, a large group of people who weren't really paying attention. And now they are. Suddenly, they know exactly what these [lawmakers] are up to," Sherwood tells New Times. "There's a whole generation of young voters who now know what's at stake for them, and it's going to have a measurable impact on turnout in November."
In addition, Sherwood and others say, 1062 has further galvanized reasonable longtime voters against the Tea Party.
Progressives and maybe even rational Republicans certainly hope so. But 1062 hardly is Arizona's first brush with institutionalized bigotry. Consider the following:
• The MLK holiday . . .
Arizona lawmakers in the 1980s refused to enact the holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. As a result, Governor Bruce Babbitt used his executive power to establish a paid state holiday on May 18, 1986, for the slain civil rights leader. The victory was short-lived. As one of his first official acts, Governor Evan Mecham in 1988 rescinded Babbitt's order. This was followed by voters turning down a ballot initiative in 1990 to institute the paid King holiday. Boycotts ensued, and the NFL yanked the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona, resulting in national embarrassment and astronomical economic loss.
It wasn't until 1992, after Arizona's revenue hit became even larger, that state voters approved the MLK holiday.
• Immigration . . .
In April 2010, Brewer signed into law SB 1070, which expanded police officers' authority to detain individuals suspected of being undocumented.
The law also made it a crime to be in Arizona without legal papers and to apply for or to get a job, and it allowed local police to arrest anyone whose crime could lead to deportation. While the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out most of these provisions, it allowed to stand the portion that gives police broader discretion to act as federal immigration enforcement officials.
Arizona and civil rights advocates still are waging court battles over different portions of the law, including a provision that makes it illegal to transport an undocumented individual in an automobile.
In 2011, the state began fully enforcing a five-year-old law that forced undocumented youth to pay out-of-state tuition at community colleges.
The next year, Brewer issued an executive order that young immigrants who qualify for President Barack Obama's temporary reprieve from deportation and can work legally in this country will be denied driver's licenses.
• Racial profiling . . .
The U.S. Department of Justice began a civil investigation in June 2008 into Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office in response to a slew of civil rights complaints, including one from former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
In May 2012, the DOJ filed a lawsuit against the MCSO alleging that it practices "unlawful discrimination" against Latinos and that it has engaged in "illegal retaliation" against critics. This lawsuit is ongoing.
In July 2008, the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of several individuals against the Sheriff's Office, maintaining that its policies and practices are discriminatory and unlawfully violate constitutional rights. A federal judge in Melendres v. Arpaio ruled in May 2013 that the sheriff had racially profiled Latinos and ordered him to stop. The judge assigned an independent monitor to the MCSO to ensure that his orders were followed.
• Gay rights . . .
Arizona voters rejected a ban on same-sex marriage in 2006 but approved amending the state's Constitution to define marriage as a union between "one man and one woman." In 2008, Governor Janet Napolitano signed an executive order granting domestic-partner benefits. Then, Arizona lawmakers passed a law in 2009 eliminating healthcare coverage for same-sex partners employed by the state.
Lawsuits followed, and Arizona's U.S. District Court and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the state law discriminated against gay and lesbian employees. In 2012, Brewer took her fight to yank the benefits from same-sex couples to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it refused to hear the case.
Last year, Republican state Representative John Kavanagh sponsored a bill making it a crime for transgenders to use restrooms designated for the sex with which they identify. The legislation sought to protect business owners from lawsuits if they refuse to allow transgenders to use such restrooms. The bill stalled in the Legislature, and he has not said whether the outcry over 1062 has caused him to rethink a promise to re-introduce it this year.
By contrast, Phoenix is pushing in the opposite direction.
While Arizona's largest city is far behind Tucson, which adopted gay-rights laws in the 1970s, it has been working to catch up.
Phoenix in 2008 adopted a registry for domestic partners, including same-sex couples, to give them the right to visit each other at any healthcare facility in the city. Like many governments and private-sector employers, Phoenix provides benefits to domestic partners -- the type of benefits that Arizona has fought to strip from same-sex partners employed by the state. And, for the first time, the Mayor's Office has made it city policy to communicate with the LGBT community.
The strides made by Phoenix, however, were marred by the behavior Chris Wilson, an openly gay police detective who was a liaison to the community on the Phoenix Police Department's Community Relations Squad.
Wilson allegedly engaged in sexual acts with Caleb Laieski, a gay teen advocate who worked a few hours a week in Stanton's office, and with Laieski's 14-year-old friend, according to police reports.
Wilson was charged in connection with both teens. When police learned of allegations that Laieski, then 17, was involved in a sexual relationship with the 14-year-old, they also charged him with sexual conduct with a minor.
"That was a real heartbreaker for us," Nicole Stanton says. "I don't make any excuses for Detective Wilson or for Caleb. Both are entitled to their day in court."
She says she does not want the incidents to be a distraction from the strides Phoenix has made on LGBT issues.
Gay-rights activists believe that topping the list of positive changes for the gay community is Phoenix's adoption of an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.
It is a groundbreaking change because, aside from shielding gays from discrimination, it signals a pivotal transformation in the attitudes of top city leaders, proponents say.
As progressive as Phoenix has been, attempts to pass such an ordinance failed under mayors Paul Johnson and Gordon, but it was on the top of Stanton's to-do list.
"Passing the ordinance was the right thing to do for the people of Phoenix, and the right thing to do for our economy," the mayor says. "If we're going to be a successful city, our margin of error is very thin. We have no time to waste on divisiveness."
Tucson passed a similar ordinance in the 1970s to protect gays and lesbians and later amended it to include transgenders. Flagstaff and Tempe also count members of the LGBT community as a protected class.
For about 20 years, advocates like Kirk Baxter, founder of the Southwest Center for HIV/AIDS, formerly known as Body Positive, and Brendan Mahoney, a former aide to Stanton, tried to get this controversial ordinance passed in Phoenix.
After a long, contentious meeting in February 2013, replete with passionate (and, at times, homophobic) debate, the expanded protections were approved 6-3, with councilmen Bill Gates, Jim Waring, and Sal DiCiccio voting no.
Though human rights advocates were elated, the progress did not come without cost. CAP's Herrod warned that the amended city law could "severely limit the religious-freedom rights of everyone in the city of Phoenix." And the powerful advocate for the religious right pledged that her organization would assess "the impact and what next steps to take in order to protect the residents of Phoenix from this deceitfully crafted law."
Three months later, SB 1178 -- last year's version of SB 1062 -- was approved by the state House and Senate and was sent to the governor. It was touted as a bill that "protects your right to freely practice your faith by strengthening the right to defend yourself in court."
With little notice outside the Capitol, Brewer vetoed the bill. Her rejection was not based on the bill's merits; rather, she wrote to state Senate President Andy Biggs, it was related to a prior warning to lawmakers that she "would not sign additional measures into law until we see resolution of the two most pressing issues facing us: adoption of a Fiscal 2014 State Budget and a plan for Medicaid."
Passage of the city ordinance earned Phoenix a perfect 100 on the national Human Rights Campaign's "municipal equality index."
HRC, the largest civil rights advocate for LGBT Americans, rates U.S. cities on a variety of factors, including whether they have non-discrimination laws, provide healthcare to domestic partners, and engage with the LGBT community.
The Stantons have pushed Phoenix to do all that.
"We've reached critical mass," Baxter says. "The power base [of right-wing conservatives] is slipping and their loss is our gain. It's a new day, and they're just going to have to accept it."
State Senator Steve Gallardo surveyed the diverse crowd of protesters gathered on the Capitol lawn before Brewer's veto was announced.
In support of the LBGT community, straight religious leaders, business owners, and families were there en masse among the thousands assembled.
Two young women, holding hands and a sign urging the veto of 1062, approached Gallardo. "They were asking me questions. They wanted to know if the governor was going to sign the bill. They were upset," Gallardo explained to a small group of reporters inside the Senate's Democratic Caucus Room about two weeks after Brewer's rejection. "They wanted to know why the Legislature was doing this, and I didn't have an answer."
Gallardo, a fourth-generation Arizonan, said the furor generated by 1062 was a turning point for him. First elected to the Legislature in 2002, Gallardo told the reporters that the time was right for him to speak out about an aspect of his life that he had never shared publicly. He said an important change had come to Arizona, one that Brewer -- the same governor who had ushered in Arizona's draconian immigration law, 1070 -- mentioned in her veto speech. She said:
"To the supporters of this legislation, I want you to know I understand that long-held norms about marriage and family are being challenged as never before. Our society is undergoing many dramatic changes. Religious freedom is a core American and Arizona value. So is non-discrimination. Going forward, let's turn the ugliness of the debate of Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans."
Gallardo continued to the reporters he had gathered: "I just think it's the right time and the right thing to do. I just think it's important for folks who struggle with this issue [to] know it's okay."
In a quavering voice, the 44-year-old concluded: "I am gay."
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