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Arizona's Equality Fail

Ariana Aboulafia |
February 24, 2014 | 3:15 p.m. PST


Well, it looks like Arizona has done it again.

A new bill in Arizona would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people because of their sexual orientation (Theodoranian, Creative Commons)
A new bill in Arizona would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people because of their sexual orientation (Theodoranian, Creative Commons)

The state that recently become famous for discriminatory policies regarding illegal immigration, has decided to take discriminatory lawmaking even further.

Arizona’s legislature passed a law this week that would allow all businesses to deny service to gay and lesbian customers under the guise of “protecting their religious beliefs.” It passed in the state House of Representatives with a 33-27 vote, and will now proceed to the Governor.

The law was purportedly written to protect the religious rights of conservative Christians who believe that they have been overrun by the gay minority. The bill is being pushed by an anti-choice, anti-marriage equality organization called the Center for Arizona Policy. Its president, Cathi Harrod, has stated that “The Arizona bill has a very simple premise, that Americans should be free to live and work according to their religious faith. It’s simply about protecting religious liberty and nothing else.”

ALSO READ: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer Likely To Veto Anti-Gay Bill

She went further, saying that opponents of the bill were the ones being discriminatory and “showing unbelievable hostility toward religious beliefs… America still stands for the principle that religious beliefs matter for something in this country, that we have the right to freely exercise our religious beliefs.”

Others, however, say that the bill is too vague, and gives those with “religion” an excuse to turn away any class of person for any reason at all.

Generally, businesses already have this right; businesses are able to turn away almost anyone that they do not wish to serve, for almost any reason (for example, if you were to show up at a 5-star restaurant in jeans and flip-flops, the owner could turn you away for being in inappropriate attire). The key word here, of course, is almost—businesses generally do not have the right to turn people away for reasons of race, ethnicity and gender because that is illegal. The question then arises as to what place sexual orientation has in these categories; plainly, is denying someone due to sexual orientation more akin to denying them because they’re not wearing the right outfit, or to denying someone due to the color of their skin? There is (or there’s about to be) a legal answer to this question; I prefer, however, to address its social side.

The proponents of this bill say that it is an exercise of “religious freedom” to deny service to people that are gay, presumably because being gay is seen as a sin in many major religions, including Christianity. To me, this is nothing but a cheap marketing ploy: by calling it religious freedom, discrimination becomes somehow honorable and bigots become martyrs. After all, no one has felt the need to use their “religious freedom” to deny service to, for example, divorced people, people who consume shellfish, people who do not observe the Sabbath, or people who get haircuts—all of whom would be considered sinners under Christianity as well. And, one would think that if these people were truly refusing the service of gays for purely religious reasons, they would also then need to refuse service to all of the above sinners because, as James 2:10 states, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it,” or, more colloquially, all sins are equal.

Clearly, this bill is not about “religious freedom.” This bill is about ignorance and prejudice, and the writers simply believe that waving around words like “religion” will help them achieve their end goals.

But, for argument’s sake, let’s say this bill were about religious freedom. Let’s say that Arizona were really trying to protect the religious freedom of its citizens. Our Constitution does indeed have a free exercise clause, stating that no law shall prohibit the free exercise of religion. On the other hand, our government has time and time again placed legal restrictions on free exercise, clearly stating that you can’t just do whatever you want and cite religion as the culprit. Where does this dichotomy (or some would say hypocrisy) come from? We are a country based on the ideal of freedom, but if religious freedom were absolute, complete chaos would ensue. After all, ‘religion’ is a nebulous term, and different religions believe in different things; because of this, if absolute religious freedom existed in America, people could do almost anything in the name of religious freedom. Obviously it does not, but this Arizona bill brings up the question yet again as to where exactly the boundaries of religious freedom lie.

If this bill were to be passed, and there happened to be a religion that saw heterosexuality as a sin, could followers of that religion use this bill as a justification to deny service to straight people?

Gay rights have gained more ground in the past year than ever before (leading some to call 2013 “the gayest year in gay history”). Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed, marriage equality is becoming more and more common and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was passed in the Senate. There have always been people that are afraid of progress, and this bill is nothing more than an attempt by those very people to ensure that our country remains stuck in the past. America needs people with the courage to stand up to discrimination, now more than ever. And, regardless of whether or not the Governor passes this particular bill, the fight for equality will continue.

The only question is, who will step up and fight?


Reach Contributor Ariana Aboulafia here.



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