Raising Cain In Arizona: Grand Canyon State Considers Legalizing Discrimination Under The Guise Of ‘Religious Liberty’

Due to our civil rights laws, people can no longer be turned away from restaurants, hotels or stores because the owner doesn’t approve of the way they live their lives.

You might have read over the weekend about a law passed by the Arizona legislature that would allow the owners of stores and secular businesses to refuse to serve certain customers if they deem that doing so would offend their religious beliefs.

The measure, SB 1062, is getting quite a lot of attention. All eyes are on Gov. Jan Brewer, who hasn’t yet said if she’ll sign the bill into law. Brewer has indicated that she’ll act this week.

On Friday morning, I appeared on CNN with Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a far-right group affiliated with Focus on the Family that wields a lot of influence in the state and that promoted the legislation. Herrod and I weren’t on the air together very long – the segment is only about seven minutes long – but it was maddening, in part because Herrod simply wasn’t being honest about this bill and what it would do.

She began by asserting that the bill isn’t really a big deal because it just “updates and clarifies” an existing law.

That’s hardly the case. The proposed legislation changes the existing law in a profound way. It would make it legal for many private businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians – or indeed anyone whose actions or private decisions about how to live are deemed morally offensive by the shop’s owner.

Not that Herrod would admit this, of course. Near the end of the segment, she was asked point blank more than once by one of the hosts if this law would allow a business, such as a restaurant, to refuse service to a same-sex couple. Herrod refused to answer. I got so frustrated with her attempts at verbal bobbing and weaving that I answered for her: Yes, the restaurant would be able to discriminate. That’s the whole point of the bill!

Since then, several defenders of the legislation have argued that it wouldn’t allow for the types of discrimination it clearly is intended to foster. Some are even arguing that the bill doesn’t really do anything. Any time you hear that argument about a piece of legislation, you can be sure that the bill in question does a lot. After all, if it doesn’t do anything, then why was it passed in the first place?

Other bill backers have argued that the measure won’t allow restaurants and hotels to turn away gays and others because the owner would have to prove that he has a “sincerely held” objection to serving them. They behave as if this is an insurmountable burden. In fact, it’s a laughably low standard.  And, unless a federal judge just happens to be hanging around the hotel lobby when a same-sex (or unmarried) couple asks for a room and is turned down, the denial of service will be immediate and severe.

The good news is that opponents of the bill are speaking up. The business community knows that this measure is a dud that will lead boycotts of the state. They have urged Brewer to veto it. LGBT groups are also organizing protests. (“Star Trek” actor George Takei penned a great letter about the bill, urging Brewer not to make it law.)

Religious Right groups are, of course, very excited about the measure. I wonder if they are also excited about the huge sums of taxpayer dollars the state will have to spend defending it in court?

Alleged “religious freedom” bills like this are pending in several states. Kansas’ House of Representatives passed one recently, but the state Senate came to its senses and killed it. Similar measures have been introduced in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Hawaii, Ohio, Mississippi and Georgia. (As I write this, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett is in Georgia working against the bill there. She says it’s even worse than Arizona’s measure.)

Some of these measures, like South Dakota’s, have already collapsed. But we expect that Religious Right groups will retool them and try again.

We have laws in this country that require stores, shops and businesses that are “public accommodations” to serve the public – all of the public. Due to our civil rights laws, people can no longer be turned away from restaurants, hotels or stores because the owner doesn’t approve of the way they live their lives. These laws have made us a better, fairer nation.

As I said on CNN, religious freedom is a noble principle. It’s a shame to see some people working overtime to turn it into a tool of oppression.

P.S. My new book, Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You The Right To Tell Other People What To Do, deals with this issue extensively. It will be available nationwide March 4.