Lowry: Arizona bill the victim of a smear campaign

By Rich Lowry

The National Review

Published: March 1, 2014 01:01AM
Updated: March 3, 2014 09:38AM
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Rich Lowry

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. 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.

Arizona was going to lose the Super Bowl over this? Maybe so. Gov. Jan Brewer took no chances and vetoed it. The bill was the subject of a truly awe-inspiring tsunami of poorly informed indignation.

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.

If you’ll excuse a brief 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, in addition to the federal government, 18 states have such statutes.

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 were in keeping with a 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. But the market has a ready solution: 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 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.