Despite Gov. Jan Brewer's Veto, Most Arizona Businesses Still Have a 'License to Discriminate' Against LGBT People

Jo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins nearly 250 gay rights supporters protesting SB1062 at the Arizona Capitol, Friday, Fe
Jo Beaudry holds up a sign as she joins 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. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

As LGBT activists cheered the demise of Arizona's controversial "license to discriminate" bill, one thing seemed lost in the media, in progressive circles, and among most Americans: Even with Gov. Jan Brewer's veto yesterday, businesses in a majority of Arizona cities still have the legal right to discriminate against LGBT people.

If passed, S.B. 1062 would have afforded business owners the right to refuse service to patrons who identify as LGBT if serving them offends those owners' religious beliefs. In this respect, S.B. 1062 is part of a broader pattern of dangerous "religious freedom" bills being proposed throughout conservative statehouses in the U.S. In this respect, the defeat of S.B. 1062 is something to celebrate, as anti-gay legislators in other states will think twice before introducing similar legislation that sanctions LGBT discrimination under the guise of "religious freedom."

However, most activists are celebrating yesterday's veto as if S.B. 1062 would have stripped all Arizonans of nondiscrimination protections that they currently enjoy under state law. This is far from the truth.

Looking broadly, U.S. federal law currently affords no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of either sexual orientation or gender identity. While an alarming nine out of 10 Americans believe laws like the stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act already exist, the cold, hard truth is that under the law of the land in the United States, it's perfectly legal to deny someone employment, refuse someone service, or kick someone out of their apartment simply because they are LGBT.

Where federal policy makers have failed to enact comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination legislation, a number of states have filled the void with nondiscrimination laws that provide LGBT people protection in employment, housing, and public accommodations. However, fewer than half have done so. Or, put another way, in a majority of states -- states like Arizona -- LGBT people have no protections against discrimination under state or federal law.

It's true that in Arizona, the cities of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Tucson, and Gilbert have municipal ordinances that afford their LGB citizens some protections against discrimination. (Phoenix, Tucson, and Tempe also afford protections to transgender citizens.) Signing S.B. 1062 into law would have invalidated the ordinances of these cities, which, according to U.S. Census data, account for 2.6 million people, or 40 percent of Arizona's total population. In that respect, the defeat of yesterday's bill was certainly a huge victory for maintaining these important protections.

However, the bill's defeat legally changes nothing for LGBT people living in the remaining cities, accounting for 60 percent of Arizona's population. If S.B. 1062 had been passed into law, businesses could have legally turned away LGBT customers. But even today, without S.B. 1062, businesses can still turn away LGBT customers in the 86 Arizona municipalities that do not have any LGBT protections on the books. Nevertheless, this fact seems lost in the media and among LGBT activists.

There is a lot to celebrate with S.B. 1062's veto. The massive opposition to this bill is one more indicator of the huge cultural shift we have made as a country, a shift away from bigotry and toward fairness and inclusion of LGBT people in our society. Moreover, the groundswell of opposition to the bill included Arizona's two Republican senators, Fortune 500 companies, and even many of the Arizona state legislators who had voted for the bill in the first place.

In this respect, the defeat of this bill is a significant symbolic victory for the LGBT movement. And as mentioned earlier, it's a significant legal victory for LGBT Arizonans living in cities like Phoenix, where they are afforded some protections against discrimination.

And yet despite these victories, the controversy that was S.B. 1062 was a missed opportunity. It was a missed opportunity to have an important conversation about the lack of legal protections afforded to LGBT Americans in this country. While marriage equality is on the march both in the courts and in the statehouses, legislation outlawing discrimination against LGBT people has stalled. To change that, we need to acknowledge that those laws don't even exist in the first place.

So yes, in many ways yesterday's veto was something to celebrate. But while LGBT Americans today celebrate the defeat of anti-gay bills such as S.B. 1062, they also await the passage of state and federal laws that would positively provide them the protections they deserve but currently lack. This means, for example, Congress finally passing comprehensive protections for LGBT Americans such that all people are protected against discrimination, regardless of the state where they reside. Now that would be something to celebrate.