February 27, 2014

In the end, it was politically, economically and morally impossible for Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to countenance a state law allowing businesses to discriminate against gays because of anti-gay bias as long as they presented their objection as rooted in religious faith. (What part of the Bible requires a restaurant owner to deny a gay couple a table?) The Post reports:

Gay rights advocates have denounced the legislation, labeling it a form of legalized discrimination, and Arizona’s two GOP senators and leading Republican candidates for governor urged Brewer to veto the bill. Even a few GOP state legislators who voted for the measure now say it is not the right thing to do.

Brewer said in a brief press conference that the bill “does not address a specific or pressing concern” and that it is not part of her agenda.

I have not heard of one example in Arizona where business owners’ religious liberty has been violated,” Brewer said. “The bill is broadly worded, and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”

Brewer told the bill’s supporters that she understands their desire to protect religious liberty, but that the bill had the potential to cause more problems than it would solve. . . .

“Going forward, let’s turn the ugliness of the debate over Senate Bill 1062 into a renewed search for greater respect and understanding among all Arizonans and Americans,” Brewer said.

Good idea, governor.

In technical terms, this bill would have allowed a business owner being sued (say for violation of fair housing law) to raise the defense that his sincere religious beliefs would have been violated and substantially burdened. In her veto statement, Brewer made clear that she has already signed laws to confirm a conscience protection for medical providers who do not, for example, wish to perform abortions and to prohibit zoning laws from infringing on religious practice. Simply put, under this bill, someone whose deeply held religious belief led him to conclude he should not be in the company of gays could post a “No gays allowed” sign in his shop or hotel. Whether or not he prevailed, the law would be an open invitation to exclude and ostracize gay people. If, as the bill’s proponents claim, there are loads of people who feel as they do, wouldn’t they all give these stunts a try?

This was not an instance in which, for example, nuns were being required to fund abortion-inducing drugs, which would require participation in an act contrary to the nuns’ religious beliefs. (Nor is it akin to requiring priests to marry gay couples, which no law could mandate without violating the First Amendment. The religious liberty clause allows religious institutions and clergy to set and follow their own doctrines.) This was a statute that harkened back to the canard used against civil rights legislation, namely that a property owner gets to do whatever he wants with his own property. That is not what the vast majority of Americans believe. Quite simply, if you are open for business, you serve the people as you find them.

The same rationale that backers of the bill concocted  (You’d force a pastry chef to bake cakes for gay weddings!) would have been used to erect broad exceptions to laws prohibiting racial, ethnic and even religious discrimination. You’d force a pastry chef to bake cakes for interracial weddings! You’d force a pastry chef to bake cakes for Jews marrying Christians! (Religious belief, which purportedly prohibited mixing of the races, after all, was used as a justification for South Africa’s apartheid system.) We don’t allow one’s conviction, be it religious or otherwise, to allow you to refuse to engage commerce with certain types of individuals. I sincerely doubt the bill’s backers would countenance a law that allowed a radical Muslim to deny service to anyone wearing a cross on the grounds that he is an “infidel.” (That hypothetical is no more outlandish than the ones proponents have dreamed up.)

I do not think there is a Republican governor in the country who would have failed to veto the bill. Enactment of this law obviously would have been not only a moral outrage and an economic disaster for a state, which would have been immediately boycotted by all sorts of groups and individuals, but it also would have been a disaster for the GOP. Standing against inclusion and arguing for discrimination (because you really, really think it would prevent you from sinning) are dead-bang losers in U.S. politics, a truism that the vast majority of Republicans seem to have grasped. (No wonder both of Arizona’s senators and Mitt Romney openly implored Brewer to veto the bill.) As long as the GOP can be associated with bias and intolerance, it will not be a majority party. The country has made a swift and definitive turn on gay rights, and Brewer, to her credit, is helping the GOP make that turn as well.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.