Arizona Legislature Passes Discriminatory Religious Freedom Bill

By Lexie Schapitl on February 24, 2014

Opponents of SB 1062 protest the bill at a rally at the state Capitol. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

The Arizona legislature passed a controversial bill that could be a huge step backward for gay rights on Feb. 20.

SB 1062, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, amends existing provisions “to protect businesses, corporations, and people from lawsuits after denying services based on a sincere religious belief,” according to an ABC15 Arizona article by Josh Frigerio.

The bill’s fact sheet states that the bill allows a person to claim free exercise as a defense in legal proceedings, and defines a person as “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, estate, trust, foundation or other legal entity.”

The bill also outlines requirements that must be met in order for a religious defense to be used in court: a person’s action or refusal to act must be motivated by a religious belief, that religious belief must be “sincerely held,” and the free exercise of the person’s religious belief must be “substantially burdened.”

On the surface, this doesn’t sound too bad. This country was founded on freedom of religion. It is protected by the first amendment of the constitution and is essentially part of America’s (figurative) DNA. Do I want to live in a country where people can be forced to act against their religion?

As it turns out, maybe I do.

It’s no secret that Christianity condemns homosexuality and that many people sincerely believe that gays are sinful people. And they are entitled to those beliefs.

But this law would allow those people, businesses, and employers to discriminate against gays with legal protection, essentially sanctioning discrimination.

People shouldn’t be treated differently based on their sexual orientation. Period. Being gay is not a choice, it’s something people are born as just like race or ethnicity or gender. Some people may dispute this fact but there is a little thing called science backing me up on this one.

So if it is wrong to discriminate against someone based on the color of his skin, why is this any different? It is possible that racial discrimination could be motivated by a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs, no lawmaker in a thousand years would ever consider a bill that brought back segregation.

Supporters of the bill cite that an individual doesn’t forfeit his right to religious freedom just because he goes to work, and that Christian business owners are “simply trying to operate their businesses according to their consciences.” But while having a job shouldn’t threaten your constitutional right to religious freedom, no constitutional right is absolute, and when one person’s religion threatens another person’s rights, there’s a problem. As for acting according to your conscience, I don’t see how anyone with a conscience could advocate for what this bill suggests.

What I find most frightening about this bill is the possibility for broad application.

The case most often referenced when discussing this bill is Elaine Photography v. Willock, in which a New Mexico photographer refused to work at a same-sex wedding, citing that it violated her religious beliefs. The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled against the photographer on grounds that she had violated the state’s Human Rights Act. The case is currently pending petition in the U.S. Supreme Court.

I have to admit that I see the photographer’s point here (before people start attacking me on social media and forming an angry mob let me refer you to one of my previous articles). If she truly believes the right to marry is reserved exclusively for one man and one woman, going to a same-sex wedding, documenting the event and essentially celebrating their marriage would obviously make her uncomfortable. I don’t agree with her, but it is a logical argument.

However, the idea that because of this one, very complicated example, we should allow anyone who has ever been to church to refuse any type of service to gays is ridiculous.

The photographer’s case clearly satisfies the three requirements of the bill: her refusal to photograph the wedding was motivated by religious belief, her religious belief was sincerely held, and celebrating a same-sex wedding would substantially burden her free exercise.

But who determines whether or not a religious belief is sincerely held, and who is to say what substantially burdens free exercise? A real estate agent could argue that by selling a gay couple a house they condone their living together. A restaurant owner could argue that by serving a gay couple on a date they condone their lifestyle in general. And every judge can just decide for himself whether or not he buys it.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer will have to decide whether or not she buys the bill as it stands; Brewer must either sign the bill into law or veto it, and her decision either way could have huge implications.

Brewer has vetoed legislation almost identical to SB 1062, according to CNN, so this entire article might be moot anyway.

Still, this issue of religion vs. gay rights isn’t going away anytime soon.  I recently read that Kansas and Idaho are proposing similar laws.

But whatever your religion, treating another person like they are worth less than you are for any reason is just wrong. The Bible may say that homosexuality is a sin, one punishable by death, but it also teaches us to hate the sin but love the sinner, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Maybe if we stopped obsessing over the first lesson and tried to live out the second a lot of our problems would be solved. Cheesy, I know, but very true.

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