Money Talks and Bigotry Walks

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona decided money talks loudly and persuasively. Had it not been for fierce public outcries about the potential harm to the state's economy, there is little doubt she would have signed Senate Bill 1062 into law. Both United States Senators from Arizona, the last Republican presidential candidate, three Republican state senators who had voted for the bill, influential Democratic leaders, big business, and the chambers of commerce -- all voiced highly publicized and powerful objection to this piece of unconstitutional legislation. The national media were relentless in shining a bright light on this odious "Jim Crow-like" legislation. Governor Brewer was faced with a no brainer, but it would be naïve to believe she vetoed the law simply because it was the right thing to do. She did so because Arizona could not afford to lose lucrative business and economic opportunities, especially Superbowl XLIX in 2015!

What is even more incredible is this proposed law was redundant and not necessary. LGBT Arizonans, like those in many of the other states proposing these so called "religious freedom" laws, are afforded no legal protection because of their sexual orientation. Businesses are already free to refuse serving LGBT customers for any reason, whatsoever. Owners and employees don't need the excuse that in order to remain true to their faith, they must turn away gays and lesbians. Unlike Arizona; Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, all have sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws. Using these laws, LGBT citizens in those states have successfully sued business owners who unlawfully refused to provide them services. As even Governor Brewer admitted during her press conference, she had not heard of one instance in Arizona of any business owner's religious liberty being violated. Arizona state Senator, and Republican gubernatorial candidate, Al Melvin made it clear in an interview with Anderson Cooper that SB 1062 was preemptive. It was a solution looking for a problem. He went on to make it clear who was targeted by this preemption: "All of the pillars of society are under attack in the United States: The family, the traditional family, traditional marriage, mainline churches, the Boy Scouts, you name it." Who could he be talking about except LGBT Americans and those who share their desire for equality and fairness under the law?

Consider what happened in Mississippi. In early January, a bill almost identical to the one in Arizona passed the Mississippi Senate with unanimous bi-partisan support. Unlike the bill in Arizona, it received almost no attention from bloggers, local or national media, and probably even more importantly, no opposition from Democratic State Senators. Seeing what happened in Arizona, these Democrats are now making some of the same excuses used by their Republican counterparts in Arizona -- they claim they didn't understand they were voting for discrimination!

Does anyone really think they were back peddling because they finally understood that these proposed bills were going to discriminate against their fellow LGBT citizens? Hardly! In Mississippi, like Arizona, there is no protection based upon sexual orientation. I would submit that if the legislation had been exclusively about banning LGBT citizens from businesses, the national media would not have picked up the story.

What many Americans found most offensive about the failed Arizona law, and the one pending in Mississippi, was that these proposed laws were too broad. The net they cast included not only the easy, intended target, LGBT citizens, but also other larger groups. I would argue this is what caught the national media's attention. Just watch the Cooper interview of Senator Melvin. For example, under these proposed laws a devout Roman Catholic could refuse to serve a divorced couple or a woman who had an abortion. A practicing Muslim shop owner could turn away a female customer whose head was not covered. A fundamentalist protestant employer could refuse to provide workers health care insurance that included contraception. And the list goes on.

Thankfully, in states where Democrats opposed these "religious freedom" protection bills, and there was national media attention, they failed. Look at Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Ohio, South Dakota and Tennessee where similar bills barely saw the light of day when they quickly stalled or were defeated. Yet the effort by those who contend their brand of fundamentalist "religious liberty" trumps equality under the law continues unabated. To date, in addition to Mississippi, there are bills similar to the failed Arizona law, pending in Georgia, Idaho, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Don't expect this recent flurry of "religious freedom" bills to be the last effort of those who oppose the equality of LGBT Americans. Although they are reeling after the decision in the Windsor case and the rising tide of marriage equality, they will be back. Anticipate their wealthy and powerful supporters represented by conservative, faith based legal organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, and the Becket Fund will help draft language that might be narrower and less objectionable to the public and business interests.

The clear lesson to be learned from the Arizona near miss is that not only LGBT citizens, but all Americans, especially women, religious minorities, thoughtful people of faith, progressives and people of no faith must remain ever vigilant. Discrimination is bad for business. Major corporations have been far ahead of government when it comes to understanding this reality. Now is the time for grass roots and national LGBT organizations to redouble efforts to form state coalitions, with others who will be impacted, to oppose these "religious freedom" laws.

In reality, these proposed statutes only provide privilege to religious fundamentalists. They need to be called out for what they are: simply licenses to discriminate and bad for business.