• Otter Views: Arizona’s Slippery Slope

    Last Thursday, the Arizona legislature passed and forwarded to Gov. Jan Brewer a religious freedom bill that would “protect” the state’s businesses and their employees from having to serve gay customers. The bill reached Brewer’s desk Monday, starting a five-day countdown for her signature or veto.
    As I write this on Tuesday, Brewer was reportedly studying the measure and taking input from constituents. While she deemed the proposed law “controversial,” she seemed confident she would make the correct decision. “As always, I will do the right thing for the state of Arizona,” she told reporters.
    Whatever its fate, the bill’s passage immediately vaulted Arizona past Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas in the “reddest red state” derby. It also makes Arizona the new bellwether for 21st century civil rights policy. Two dozen other legislatures weighing faith-based “business protection” bills could only look on enviously as Arizona once again set the bar.
    It seems only fitting that the state toughest on illegal immigration and gun control should also lead the charge against gays trying to buy wedding cakes. As proven by its jurisdictional battles with the federal government, refusal to observe Martin Luther King Day and rebuffs of boycott threats, Arizona calls its own shots.
    The boycott threats bubbled up again this week. American Airlines and Apple joined the Super Bowl committee in pressing Gov. Brewer for a veto (Arizona is the 2015 game site). Even the ultra-conservative Arizona Chamber of Commerce warned that the new law could suppress tourism revenue, capital investment and employment.
    But Arizona has faced down these sorts of threats before. Economic boycotts and convention cancellations carry little weight in a state renowned for its fanatical devotion to citizens’ rights. As Arizona’s most famous native son, Senator Barry Goldwater, put it in 1964: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.”
    While Goldwater was talking about nuclear weapons and national security, the “defense of liberty” theme also resonates in the current debate. Specifically, the new law would protect Arizona businesses and individuals whose “religious liberty” would be abridged if they had to serve gay customers.
    “This is to protect pastors and individual owners of companies so that they’re not forced to do something contrary to their religious beliefs,” said state representative Al Melvin, a Tea Party member who joined all but three fellow Republican lawmakers in passing the bill.
    If the Arizona bill becomes law and weathers Supreme Court scrutiny, it could become a template for similar actions elsewhere. While religious-based “business protection” laws failed narrowly this year in Maine, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, many other states remain keen to roll back perceived gay rights gains nationally.
    One strategy is to use freedom of religion as a legal curb on non-traditional marriage. If one’s faith dictates, say, that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, it would be sacrilege to conduct one’s business otherwise. Thus, any proprietor or employee “freely living out their faith in the workplace” (to use the current catch phrase) could legally deny service to customers trying to arrange an alternative wedding.
    Curious to learn how defenders of the Arizona measure justify what amounts to a new Jim Crow law, I tuned in to Tuesday’s broadcast of the National Public Radio forum “On Point.” Among the panelists was Doug Napier, spokesman for the Arizona Alliance Defending Freedom.
    “It’s to protect them from having to do things that go against their religion,” Napier told program host Tom Ashcroft. “You shouldn’t be forced to bake a cake for a wedding ceremony you don’t believe in.”
    Napier went on to say that Arizona’s business protection bill was a response to nationwide “attacks on conservatives” that have seen first the U.S. military, then the Boy Scouts of America, forced to accept gay members. He termed this “tyranny in the name of tolerance.”
    Responding to another panelist’s assertion that commerce requires that “if you make cupcakes, you must sell them to everybody,” Napier took an intriguing tack. He said businesses and their employees are not simply engaged in commerce – in the mundane selling of products and services – but in personal expression. Thus, freedom of speech protections come into play as well.
    In Napier’s view, people like barbers, photographers, bakers, dressmakers, florists, caterers, wedding planners and hair stylists are not just selling their wares. “They sell memories, art work, and personal expressions that create a story,” he said. “They should not be compelled to use their expressive talents for something their faith does not support.”
    While the program’s other panelists predicted the Arizona law, if signed, will face “constitutional problems,” one of Ashbrook’s callers foresaw a different challenge.
    “How are you going to identify people as gay?” she asked. “Sew yellow stars on their sleeves?”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on February 28, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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