An emerging trend of state legislation allowing businesses to refuse services on religious grounds — most recently in Arizona where a measure has reached the desk of Gov. Jan Brewer (R) — has triggered outrage among advocates who say the bills are intended to enable discrimination against LGBT people.
The bill passed by the legislature in Arizona, SB 1062, has become known as the “turn away the gay” bill after the Republican-controlled Arizona State House approved the measure Thursday by a 33-27 vote.
Despite her reputation as an ultra conservative, Brewer expressed uncertainty over the weekend over what action she’ll take on the bill, saying the measure is “very controversial.” She has five days to sign or veto the measure once it reaches her desk.
“We know that it has failed in a lot of states across the country,” Brewer told reporters. “I have not been in town currently. I’ve been reading about it on the Internet, and I will make my decision probably by next Friday, if I do decide to sign it. But it’s very controversial. So I got to get my hands around it.”
The measure never mentions the words “gay,” “sexual orientation” or “gender identity,” but expands the state’s definition of exercise of religion to allow any person — which under the bill could be an individual, a religious assembly or business — to deny services based on a religious belief.
Under the bill, the exemption could only be used in court if the refusal to act is motivated by a religious belief; the person’s religious belief is sincerely held; and state action “substantially” burdens the exercise of the person’s religious beliefs.
Critics say the legislation is intended to allow businesses to deny services or discriminate against gay people or same-sex couples — even though Arizona state law already permits discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
Eunico Rho, an advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union who works on state initiatives, said the measure would set “a dangerous precedent” because it would invite individuals and businesses in Arizona to discriminate.
“Arizona already has a law that says the government can’t unnecessarily burden somebody’s religious beliefs, but this takes that into the private sphere and says no private individual can burden somebody’s else religious beliefs,” Rho said. “Given how religiously diverse we are — and the state of Arizona is — it’s just such a dangerous and unprecedented on…the legislature’s part.”
Because certain localities in Arizona bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, Rho said the passage of the Arizona bill would complicate the enforcement of these ordinances.
Amid consternation over the legislation and scrutiny from national media, the anti-gay group that drafted the legislation said the concerns are overblown.
Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, said in a statement Friday the measure is merely aimed at protecting religious liberties.
“Simply put, the fear-mongering from opponents is unrelated to the language of the bill, and proves that hostility towards people of faith is very real,” Herrod said. “It’s a shame we even need a bill like this in America. But growing hostility against freedom in our nation, and the increasing use of government to threaten and punish its own citizens, has made it necessary.”
Although major national LGBT rights groups were initially silent on the Arizona bill, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force issued statements on Friday after Brewer expressed uncertainty about the bill and gay blogger Joe Jervis criticized them for their silence.
Amid the wait over what action Brewer will take on the legislation, LGBT grassroots advocates have started a campaign to encourage her to reject the measure by asking businesses in Arizona to speak out.
Scott Wooledge, a New York-based LGBT netroots advocate, has set up a website, “Do AZ’s Top Businesses Support Or Oppose SB 1062?” monitoring the positions of Arizona businesses on the legislation.
“Together, the companies I approached employ more than a quarter million people in the state of Arizona,” Wooledge said. “This makes them all significant stakeholders in any business-related legislation, and SB 1062 is a business-related bill.”
Companies headquartered in Arizona identified on the website are US Airways, PetSmart, Apollo Group, GoDaddy, U-Haul, Cold Stone Creamery, Bashas’ Markets, Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold Inc, Banner Health P.F. Chang’s, Best Western and Circle K. None were listed as having expressed a position as of Monday morning.
But both members of Arizona’s delegation to the U.S. Senate — Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have weighed in via Twitter to urge Brewer to reject the bill. Both were among the Senate Republicans who voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act last year (although Flake twice voted against cloture.)
Others who have spoken out via Twitter to urge Brewer to veto the bill are Democrats representing the state in the U.S. House: Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), Ron Barber (D-Ariz.) and bisexual Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Prior to House passage of the bill last week, Sinema said in a statement that Brewer must consider the negative consequences of the legislation should she sign it.
“The economic hit to our state, if this misguided bill is signed into law, will undoubtedly harm thousands of hardworking Arizonans, and is irresponsible at a time when we are just starting to recover from the economic downturn,” Sinema said. “Arizona is better than this. I call on Governor Brewer to show leadership and veto the bill if it is sent to her.”"
In recent weeks, the movement of the legislation to enable discrimination by expanding religious liberties hasn’t been limited to Arizona. As previously reported by the Washington Blade, progress on these bills is apparently a new tactic from anti-gay groups in response to the advancement of marriage equality.
Laura Durso, director of the LGBT project for the Center for American Progress, said the proliferation of these bills puts at risk all Americans, not just LGBT Americans.
“Bills like Arizona’s SB 1062 open the door to all types of discrimination, not only in wedding-related services but among healthcare providers and other licensed professionals,” Durso said. “The first amendment protects our right to practice our religion as we see fit and these types of laws threaten our social contract — that we treat others as we wish to be treated and abide by the same rules in the public marketplace.”
In Kansas, the State House approved legislation allowing businesses to refuse services to same-sex couples. And unlike the Arizona bill, the Kansas measure explicitly mentions same-sex couples, saying no individual should be required to provide a service related to a same-sex wedding or civil union ceremony.
Numerous media outlets, including the Blade, reported last week the legislation, House Bill 2453, was dead in the Senate following public outcry, but one LGBT advocate in the state said he’s not so sure.
Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said he expects the legislation to reappear in the Senate — possibly with slightly different language as an insert to a larger bill — as early as Wednesday.
“The radical right in the House is pushing real hard to bring this bill back, not under that number,” Witt said. “The number is dead. The Senate is not going to let that number come back up, but they’re looking for a way to stuff the language in a different bill.”
Similar religious exemption bills that have died have come in Maine, where the House last week defeated a measure by a 89-52 vote, as well as in South Dakota, Tennessee and Idaho, which all died in committee.
Lawmakers pushing the bills are drawing on recent stories of individuals facing penalties for refusing services to same-sex couples, such as a Colorado baker who was found to have violated a couple’s civil rights for refusing to bake a cake for them or the New Mexico photographer who got in trouble after refusing to take a picture of a same-sex wedding ceremony.
ACLU’s Rho noted that lawmakers in Arizona and Kansas have been drawing on these stories to advocate for the enactment of religious exemption bills, but said she doesn’t think the bills are anything new.
“I think in Arizona, they’ve made it quite clear, that that was one of the main reasons for expanding the religious refusal bill into this extraordinary scope,” Rho said. “But as I said, people claiming the right to refuse services is certainly nothing new.”
Despite the proliferation of these bills, no LGBT advocate is calling on President Obama to publicly condemn them — even though they’ve asked for his help for other LGBT rights causes.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had little to say Monday when asked about the Arizona bill by CNN.
“I haven’t spoken with the president about that,” Carney said. “I don’t have an official position. It certainly doesn’t sound particularly tolerant, but I don’t have a position at this time.”
But LGBT advocates say Obama’s voice against advancing the bills in these Republican-dominated states will fall on deaf ears — and might even encourage lawmakers to enact the measures.
Rho said she thinks an appropriate response would be passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar many employers from discriminating against LGBT workers across the country, as opposed to vocal opposition from Obama.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of the state legislatures and the governors who are endorsing these kind of measures don’t care much for what the president says or thinks, so I don’t know if Sam Brownback cares much for President Obama’s opinion,” Rho said.