‘Religious freedom’ as a fig leaf for discrimination

     Margaret Jean Plews works on a chalk drawing as she joined nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix. The protesters gathered demanding Gov. Jan Brewer veto legislation that would allow business owners to refuse to serve gays by citing their religious beliefs. The governor must sign or veto Senate Bill 1062 by the end of next week. (Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)

    Margaret Jean Plews works on a chalk drawing as she joined nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, in Phoenix. The protesters gathered demanding Gov. Jan Brewer veto legislation that would allow business owners to refuse to serve gays by citing their religious beliefs. The governor must sign or veto Senate Bill 1062 by the end of next week. (Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo)

    The rumble you just heard is the stampede of Republicans and business leaders fleeing in horror from the latest manifestation of Arizona madness. To their credit, they think it’s nuts to give bigots a godly excuse to discriminate against gay people.

    This week, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer will decide whether to sign or veto America’s first legislative measure that creates a license to oppress. A veto should be a slam dunk, but this is Arizona we’re talking about, and Brewer seeks smooth relations with the Republican lawmakers who passed the measure. They think it’s a dandy idea to give religious people (and people claiming to be religious) the right to deny marketplace services to gays, under the banner of “religious freedom.”

    But John McCain wants it vetoed. So does his junior senatorial colleague, Jeff Flake. So does Doug Cole, a longtime Brewer adviser (“I’m encouraging a veto”). Three Republicans currently running for governor (Brewer is term-limited) want it vetoed. One of them, Mesa mayor Scott Smith, says that even though he’s a Christian conservative, he worries that the so-called religious freedom measure “could negatively affect our most basic rights” and “have a detrimental impact on Arizona’s business environment.” And heck, even three of the state senators who voted for the measure are now urging a veto. One of them, Steve Pierce, says simply, “I screwed up. I’m trying to make it right.”

    Meanwhile, Marriott Hotels and American Airlines are calling for a veto. The CEOs of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council have written to Brewer, urging a veto: “As leaders in the business community, we cannot support measures that could expose our businesss to litigation, nor do we want to send a message that our state is anything but an open and attractive place for visitors and the top talent that will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth.”

    Granted, most of these nervous nellies are far more concerned about Arizona’s image and economy than about the civil rights of the state’s gay citizens. Arizona is slated to host the next Super Bowl, after all. But if they can persuade Brewer to veto on the basis of their business arguments, and thus save Arizona from international humiliation, fine. They can leave the key constitutional arguments to those of us who care about such things. And here’s that argument in a nutshell:

    Freedom of religion, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, is not a blank check to oppress one’s fellow Americans in the name of religion.

    It would appear that Brewer has sympathy for those who would deny marketplace services to gays, just as a matter of principle. Last Friday she told CNN, “I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don’t work with….In my life and in my business, if I don’t want to do business, or if I don’t want to deal with a particular company or person or whatever, I’m not interested. That’s America. That’s freedom.”

    Gee. Southern whites, as late as the 1960s, used that same argument to justify their refusal to serve black people. Lester Maddox, a future governor of Georgia, invoked his freedom of conscience when he brandished an axe handle and chased blacks out of his restaurant.

    And now, in Arizona half a century later, that argument has been updated and festooned in “religious freedom” window dressing, for the purpose of denying equal rights to gays. The Arizona measure – a prime example of a new nationwide conservative tactic designed to retard the march to equality – would basically allow any homophobe to play the God card.

    As Matthew Whitaker, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University, says, “It will lead to marginalization and oppression by allowing bigots to deny gay people access to virtually any business and service.” For instance, says University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin, “There is absolutely nothing in the act that would preclude a bed store from arguing that selling beds to same sex couples violates its religious beliefs because it facilitates sinful conduct.” (And the language is so loose that gays might not be the only targets.)

    But perhaps Matthew Dowd, former pollster for George W. Bush, has the best assessment – because he knows his history. He denounced the Arizona measure the other day, on ABC News: “This is one of those problems when people use religion as a way to sort of enforce discrimination practices. People used religion back in the 1860s when they defended slavery. We’ve used religion to go to war….This is the problem with that. In the end I think she vetoes it, because there’s no way this (measure) can survive.”

    He may be right, but Arizona is merely the first to pass such a law. Lawmakers in at at least four other states are playing the God card as well. As an Atlanta columnist says about a “religious freedom” bill currently on tap in Georgia, “that’s what all the cool conservative kids are doing…because it sends a message of defiance to those who believe that gay Americans ought to be treated the same as everybody else.”

    Turning back the clock is cool? It seems more like desperation.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

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