POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Feb 22, 2014
In New Mexico, a photographer declined to take pictures of a lesbian couple's commitment ceremony. In Washington state, a florist would not provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. And in Colorado, a baker refused to make a cake for a party marking the wedding of two men.
In each case, the business owners cited their religious beliefs in declining to provide services celebrating same-sex relationships. And in each case, they were sued.
Now, as states around the nation weigh how to balance the rights of same-sex couples with those of conservative religious business owners, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona must decide whether to sign legislation that would allow business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for denying service to same-sex couples.
The legislation, approved by lawmakers Thursday, immediately attracted national attention, with conservative religious groups welcoming it as a necessary form of protection for objectors to same-sex marriage, and gay rights groups denouncing it as a license for discrimination. The measure comes at a time when the courts are grappling with how to define the religious rights of private businesses: The Supreme Court is to hear two cases next month in which businesses are seeking exemptions from providing insurance coverage for contraception to their employees, citing the religious beliefs of the companies' owners.
"In America, people should be free to live and work according to their faith, and the government shouldn't be able to tell us we can't do that," said Joseph E. La Rue, the legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that advocates for religious liberty and supports the measure passed by the state Legislature. "Faith shouldn't be something we have to leave inside our house."
But civil libertarians and gay rights advocates say there is a difference between protections for clergy and houses of worship that do not want to participate in same-sex marriage and the obligations of business owners that serve the general public.
"Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it's not a blank check to harm others or impose our faith on our neighbors," said Daniel Mach, who directs a program on freedom of religion and belief for the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the Arizona legislation. "Over the years, we as a nation have rejected efforts to invoke religion to justify discrimination in the marketplace, and there's no reason to turn back the clock now."
Brewer, who has taken no public position on the legislation that will reach her desk next week, is a Republican whose tenure has been punctuated by controversy and political discord over a tough measure on illegal immigrants, which was denounced from the left, and a Medicaid expansion, which was criticized by the right.
Last year she vetoed a similar religious freedom bill, arguing that it was a distraction from priorities lawmakers had yet to address, including the state budget. And there are similar circumstances this year, as legislators have yet to act on a package of proposed changes to the state's child welfare system, which has been plagued by a slow response to complaints of abuse and neglect.
Chuck Coughlin, a public affairs consultant who led Brewer's transition team after she was elected governor in 2009 and has remained a close ally, said he was doubtful that she would sign the bill into law, saying, "We already have laws to sufficiently protect people's religion freedoms in this country, and this bill could actually empower people to discriminate."
The bill comes at an awkward time for Brewer, who has been eager to move beyond controversy in her last year in office. (Term limits prevent her from running for re-election.)
She has tried to focus on revitalizing the state's economy, which is struggling in spite of a rebound of the housing market. The state, which was boycotted by some over the immigration measure, is preparing to host next year's Super Bowl, and some residents worry that the religious freedom measure could again spur a backlash.
In a letter to Brewer on Friday, Gonzalo A. de la Melena Jr., president and chief executive of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the bill, if it becomes law, would "ultimately have the effect of casting Arizona in a negative light that stands to damage our reputation nationwide and globally and significantly harm our fiscal future."
It was just one in a chorus of pleas that the governor to veto the legislation.
"It sounds like it's opening the door to hate and bigotry of all stripes," said Rocco DiGrazia, a Tucson pizzeria owner, who on Friday attracted national attention via social media because he had posted signs on the restaurant's doors declaring, "We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to Arizona Legislators."
"I make dinner for a living - I'm not a social activist," DiGrazia said in a telephone interview. "But I do have a lot of gay customers and employees, and why are you trying to alienate these people?"
But supporters of the legislation said they would also work hard to persuade Brewer to sign the measure, in part by disputing much of the criticism it has faced.
Most states where same-sex marriage is legal have exemptions for religious organizations, but not for private businesses or individuals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Arizona measure comes as multiple states are considering such exemptions, with considerable controversy. In Tennessee, the Legislature is considering an exemption for wedding vendors; in Kansas, a similar measure was set aside when conservative senators raised concerns about discrimination. In Oregon, opponents of same-sex marriage are seeking to place an initiative on this year's ballot that would allow individuals or businesses to opt out of participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.
Supporters and opponents of the Arizona legislation do not agree on its potential impact. Supporters say it would simply tweak a religious freedom law in Arizona to make it clear that private individuals can use religious freedom as a defense in civil litigation; opponents say it would allow business owners to discriminate against anyone they do not like, citing religious freedom.
"There is significant fear it will undermine local nondiscrimination laws," said Sarah Warbelow, the state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy organization. "This is not about the freedom of individuals to practice their religion; this is about a license to discriminate against individuals."
But Josh Kredit, legal counsel of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative group that supported the bill, said Arizona has for years had a religious freedom law that has not been used to justify discrimination and that the changes to that law made by the new measure are "vitally needed to ensure that in America people are free to live and work according to their faith."
"Arizona should be known as a state that welcomes people of faith and protects them," he said. "These are intentional, purposeful distractions to try to kill this bill."
Michael Paulson and Fernanda Santos, New York Times