Senate Bill 1062 could have stimulated an interesting debate on the bounds of religious freedom. But it never happened. The white-hot outrage of the tolerance police wouldn’t allow it.
Here are the facts which pretty much never got out. SB 1062 was an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), passed in 1999 to protect Arizonans from government infringement on their religious liberty. The Arizona bill, like 17 other state RFRA’s, mirrored the federal bill written by uber-Democrat Chuck Schumer and signed by President Clinton.
SB 1062 didn’t fundamentally change the intent of RFRA, according to a bipartisan group of 11 constitutional scholars from universities like Harvard, Notre Dame and Stanford. The bill in fact had been “egregiously misrepresented by many of its critics,” they wrote Gov. Jan Brewer.
SB 1062 was simply intended to clarify “two ambiguities that have been the subject of litigation under other RFRA’s.” According to the scholars “it would provide that people (not only businesses) are covered” by the religious freedom protections and “that people are covered when sued by a private citizen (not only government) invoking state or local law to demand that they violate their religion.” Furthermore, RFRA as amended would still allow only religious beliefs as a defense. It didn’t guarantee victory to either side.
So there you have it. The “debate” that followed was really about RFRA, not SB 1062. The question is how to reconcile competing rights. On the one hand is the right of all to abide by their religious conscience and not be compelled otherwise by the state. On the other side is the right to not be discriminated against when accessing publicly available services.
Nothing new here. Civilized societies, including ours, have been working out such problems for some time. Usually some reasonable accommodation is made, such as tests of the legitimacy of the religious beliefs and assuring that adequate services are available to all, if not from every vendor. Whatever.
You can see how legislators were taking taken aback by the raging firestorm that ensued. They’ve been criticized for everything including their lack of foresight, but an identical bill had been passed last year with a little fanfare. It was vetoed because Brewer was pouting at the time over the Legislature’s delay in passing the Medicaid expansion.
But somehow this time the response was widespread outrage at the severe damage this “War on Gays” would cause. It was deemed obvious that bill supporters were bigots and homophobes. Daily headlines, including in the national media, inveighed against this “stain” on Arizona. Critics of an historical bent likened the situation to “Jim Crow” and “Nazis.”
The left, as usual, didn’t seek debate, they wanted to silence and humiliate the opposition. In response, the GOP formed up into their circular firing squad and started in. Our U.S. senators, rather than using their influence to restore sanity, joined the panic and urged a veto for the “good of the state.” National influence leaders from Mitt Romney to the NFL piled on.
Under the din some voices of reason could still be heard. Some pointed out that gay weddings, not any other public accommodations for gays, had historically been the only occasions for which RFRA rights had been asserted. Others questioned why anyone would want an unwilling baker or florist to participate in their joyful occasion when so many others were available.
Andrew Sullivan, the noted gay activist, said he favored “maximal liberty” in these cases, i.e. weddings. “If we value our freedom as gay people living our lives the way we wish, we should defend that same freedom to sincere religious believers,” he wrote. “You do not conquer intolerance with intolerance.”
Since SB 1062 on its merits was of no great consequence, it’s inevitable demise won’t matter that much. What does matter is that vitriolic hyperbole shut down reasoned discourse. “Haters” were publicly hated. “Bigots” were shouted down by the mob.
Religious liberty, that inalienable right which stimulated America’s founding, got kicked under the bus.
• East Valley resident Tom Patterson is a retired physician and former state senator. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.