Arizona lawmakers passed a “religious freedom” bill allowing
businesses to turn away gay customers. Gov. Jan Brewer weighs economic
impact as she decides whether to sign it.
By Patrik Jonsson
ATLANTA — The fact that doctors in the U.S. can refuse to perform
abortions on religious grounds hasn’t eased the national backlash to
an Arizona bill that would allow private business owners to turn away
gay and lesbian customers in the name of “religious freedom” — a
euphemism for what critics dub the “right to discriminate.”
Indeed, growing opposition to the bill passed Thursday by conservative
Republicans lawmakers in Arizona has now put Gov. Jan Brewer in a
tough spot as she decides in the next five days whether or not to sign
“It’s very controversial, so I’ve got to get my hands around it,” Gov.
Brewer said Friday.
Brewer, a conservative Republican who signed the much-debated and
litigated “papers, please” anti-illegal immigration law in 2010, is an
old hand at cultural controversy. But she has tried to focus more on
economic expansion in her last year as governor. (She is
Even so, the 2010 immigration law could be framed in a business
context, and businesses were involved in designing and commenting on
what amounted to a state labor policy.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on the other hand, is
different. The bill was written after the state Supreme Court in New
Mexico, Arizona’s neighbor to the east, told a Christian wedding
photography studio that it had to take pictures of a gay wedding if
asked. In recent years, courts across the country have chided bakers,
florists, and even wedding chapels for turning gays away on religious
As a result, Republicans in 10 states have introduced various forms of
a “Christian shield” law, but most have been held up in conference.
Until now, in Arizona.
State Republicans there have maintained the bill, which shields
religious business owners from legal backlash if they turn away a
homosexual customer, is but a “tweak” to laws in a state that already
does not count gays as a protected class in its anti-discrimination
The legislation expands the state’s definition of “exercise of
religion” to include mere observance and adds “business organization”
to groups protected by laws guaranteeing the free exercise of
“We are trying to protect people’s religious liberties,” Arizona State
Rep. Steve Montenegro, a Republican, told US News & World Report. “We
don’t want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act
against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if
you are a small-business owner.”
Yet it’s hard to miss the bare optics, and the relationship of the
Arizona bill to a broader national debate over gay marriage: Arizona
is already one of 29 states that have passed constitutional amendments
banning gay marriage in reaction to the growing legal and social
acceptance of gay and lesbian legal unions, which come with
And even if Republicans are right, that the law is but a minor
adjustment to existing protections, business interests in the state
have suggested that the proposal is already a public relations
The Greater Phoenix Economic Council has reported that in the span of
a day, four corporations scouting Arizona for expansion have raised
reservations about their moves should the “religious freedom” bill
become law with Brewer’s signature. Moreover, the extent of Arizona’s
welcome to a panoply of Americans will be on the national radar next
year, when the state hosts the Super Bowl.
“This legislation has the potential of subjecting the Super Bowl, and
major events surrounding it, to the threats of boycotts,” said Barry
Broome of the Phoenix economic council, in a letter to Brewer.
Despite growing opposition to the proposal from gay advocates and
business groups, there is also intense pressure for Brewer to go ahead
and sign the bill, especially since it passed handily in both the
House and Senate.
The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group that helped write
the law, noted Friday that existing religious freedom statutes in
Arizona have not been used to justify discrimination, and that those
laws now need to be broadened “to ensure that in America people are
free to live and work according to their faith,” as Josh Kredit, the
group’s legal counsel, told the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Christian advocacy groups have lambasted state and federal
courts for forcing those with deep convictions to do work that they
feel contradicts their religious beliefs.
Cases involving bakers being told to bake wedding cakes for gay
couples also wander into First Amendment free speech territory, since
it remains unclear whether the state can actually compel artisans and
craftsmen to create objects under religious protest.
The U.S. Supreme Court will tackle a related matter next month when it
considers whether religious business owners have to provide insurance
coverage that includes contraception for their employees.