Jewish World Review Feb 28, 2014 / 28 Adar I, 5774
Arizona guv's Foolish Veto
By Rich Lowry
JewishWorldReview.com | It was jarring to read the coverage of the new “anti-gay bill” passed by the Arizona Legislature and then look up the text of the instantly notorious SB 1062. The bill was roughly 998 pages shorter than much of legislation that passes in Washington, so reading it didn’t take much of a commitment. Clocking in at barely two pages, it was easy to scan for disparaging references to homosexuality, for veiled references to homosexuality, for any references to homosexuality at all.
They weren’t there. A headline from The Week declared, “There is nothing Christian about Arizona’s anti-gay bill.” It would be more accurate to say that there was nothing anti-gay about Arizona’s anti-gay bill.
The legislation consisted of minor clarifications of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been on the books for 15 years and is modeled on the federal act that passed with big bipartisan majorities in the 1990s and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
For The New York Times editorial board, the bill was “A License to Discriminate.” It constituted “the legalizing of anti-gay prejudice,” according to a piece in U.S.News & World Report. It was, Salon scoffed, “cartoonishly bigoted.” A reference to Jim Crow was obligatory in any discussion of the bill on cable TV.
Writing in The Week, Elizabeth Stoker said the logic of the bill “threatens to twist Christianity into a vile, exclusionary isolating thing.” But it was beyond the power of Arizona lawmakers to redefine Christianity. Stoker must have mistaken the Arizona Legislature for the Council of Nicaea.
In USA Today, the influential liberal pundit Kirsten Powers posited that the bill would enable all-out civil conflict, with Muslim pharmacists possibly refusing to give uncovered women antibiotics, Christian pacifists refusing to let Army sergeants stay in their hotels, and Christian restaurateurs who oppose judging gays refusing to serve overly judgmental Christians.
There you have it: If a few lines were changed in Arizona’s religious freedom law, the state would practically become Bosnia-Herzegovina circa 1992. Rarely had so much hinged on a couple of dozen words of an otherwise wholly innocuous statute.
If you’ll excuse a brief, boring break from the hysteria to dwell on the text of the doomed bill, it stipulated that the word “person” in the law applies to businesses and that the protections of the law apply whether or not the government is directly a party to a proceeding (e.g., a lawsuit brought on anti-discrimination grounds).
Eleven legal experts on religious freedom statutes — who represent a variety of views on gay marriage — wrote a letter to Gov. Brewer prior to her veto explaining how the bill “has been egregiously misrepresented by many of its critics.”
In addition to the federal government, 18 states have such statutes and about a dozen other states interpret their state constitutions as extending the same protections, according to the letter. The statutes, the scholars write, “say that before government can burden a person’s religious exercise, the government has to show a compelling justification.”
The letter argues that, properly interpreted, the federal law that inspired the Arizona statute covers cases that don’t directly involve the government and covers businesses. So Arizona’s changes weren’t radical but in keeping with a federal law once championed by none other than Sen. Ted Kennedy.
A religious freedom statute doesn’t give anyone carte blanche to do whatever he wants in the name of religion. It simply allows him to make his case in court that a law or a lawsuit substantially burdens his religion and that there is no compelling governmental interest to justify the burden.
For critics of the Arizona bill, the substance was almost an afterthought. They recoiled at the very idea that someone might have moral objections to homosexuality or gay marriage.
The cases that have come up relevant to the Arizona debate involve small-business people declining to provide their services to gay couples at their marriage ceremonies. A New Mexico photographer won’t take pictures. A Washington state florist won’t arrange flowers. An Oregon bakery won’t bake a wedding cake.
It’s easy to see how offensive these decisions were to the gay couples involved. An entirely understandable response would be for the couple to say, “I’m sorry you’re so narrow-minded and I hope you evolve one day. In the meantime, I’ll take my business elsewhere.”
The market has a ready solution for these couples: There are other bakers, photographers and florists. The wedding business is not exactly bristling with hostility to gay people. If one baker won’t make a cake for gay weddings, the baker across town can hang a shingle welcoming all couples for all types of weddings.
This is how a pluralistic society would handle such disputes. Instead, in the cases mentioned above, the gay couples reported the businesses to the authorities for punishment.
The question isn’t whether businesses run by people opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds should provide their services for gay weddings; it is whether they should be compelled to by government. The critics of the much-maligned Arizona bill pride themselves on their live-and-let-live open-mindedness, but they are highly moralistic in their support of gay marriage, judgmental of those who oppose it and tolerant of only one point of view on the issue — their own.
For them, someone else’s conscience is only a speed bump on the road to progress. It’s get with the program, your religious beliefs be damned.
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