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Clippings by Lee Kahrs: Arizona bill enshrines prejudice

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Posted on February 26, 2014 |
By Lee J. Kahrs



My wife Sarah and I will be celebrating our 10-year anniversary this October, and we decided to mark the occasion with an epic road trip through the Southwest. Sarah, a great lover of hiking and the outdoors, has never been to the Grand Canyon, and I wanted to take her there. We would fly into Las Vegas, pick up a campervan and drive first to Zion National Park in Utah, then to the Grand Canyon, then on to Santa Fe and Taos in New Mexico before heading back across Arizona to Las Vegas.

On Feb. 20, I made camping reservations at the Grand Canyon. It was the first step in making concrete plans for the trip, and the way it worked out, we would be celebrating our actual anniversary, Oct. 10, at the Grand Canyon.

It was exciting. For weeks, I have been poring over websites, weighing options on campervan rentals, planning the route, researching the state parks and campgrounds, planning a budget and estimating how long we would be in each place.

But the same day I made those reservations, the Arizona Legislature passed S.B.1062, a bill that re-defines and expands the state’s definition of “exercise of religion” and “state action” to protect businesses, corporations and people from lawsuits after denying services based on a sincere religious belief.

They have legislated prejudice.

In the bill, a person is described as “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.”

So, if Gov. Jan Brewer signs the bill into law this week, any Arizona business owner could legally refuse to do business with a gay person if they claim that homosexuality goes against their religious beliefs.

Brewer has until Thursday, Feb. 27, to either sign the bill into law or veto it. Based on her recent statements, it could go either way.

“I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don’t work with,” Brewer said the day after the bill was approved by the Legislature. “But I don’t know that it needs to be statutory. In my life and in my businesses, if I don’t want to do business or if I don’t want to deal with a particular company or person or whatever, I’m not interested. That’s America. That’s freedom.”

But the irony is that this bill restricts my freedom and my wife’s freedom if we choose to travel to Arizona because we are gay.

When we finally get to the Grand Canyon, the RV park where I made the reservations could refuse to let us in based on their religious beliefs, because we’re gay.

When we stop at an Arizona truck stop, the owners could refuse to sell us gas and snacks, because we’re gay.

If we decide to get a motel room for a night to take a break from the campervan, the motel owner could refuse to rent us a room, because we’re gay.

What’s next, separate drinking fountains and lunch counters? This smacks of the post-civil rights era in America, where blacks were and still are subjected to prejudice. It’s not right, not for any American.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an organization that supported the passing of the bill, says the bill “protects the religious freedom of every Arizonan.”

In a statement released Saturday, Feb. 22, Herrod said, “It’s a shame that we even need a bill like this in America. But growing hostility against freedom in our nation, and the increasing use of government to threaten and punish its own citizens, has made it necessary. I urge Governor Brewer to send a clear message to the country that in Arizona, everyone, regardless of their faith, will be protected in Arizona by signing S.B.1062.”

Herrod and other supporters cite recent lawsuits where business owners have been sued for refusing to cater a gay wedding, or bake a gay cake.

What is this, tit for tat? Granted, in the Bill of Rights there is a provision for freedom of religion, but there is also a right to freedom of expression. They are not mutually exclusive. I say they are equally important, but the state of Arizona seems to differ.

Frankly, despite what Gov. Brewer does, we will likely cancel our trip through the Southwest and spend 10 days traveling the Pacific Coast Highway in California. We will not spend a dime in Arizona, and if hundreds of thousands of gay people do the same, the Arizona Department of Tourism will feel the pain.

But there is another layer to all of this. I think that federal recognition of gay marriage has lulled people, gay and straight alike, into complacency about gay rights. What the situation in Arizona is doing is highlighting how far we still have to go.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact that my own government recognizes my marriage and my family is huge. We cried that day in June last year. It was an enormous affirmation. Plus, I am now saving thousands on health insurance.

But there is still a long list of places around the U.S., and around the world, where gays and lesbians are not welcome. What’s the point of getting married if we can’t in good conscience honeymoon in Arizona, or Alabama, or Belize, or Barbados? When I was looking at alternatives to Arizona, I realized it was also a good idea to avoid Africa, Jamaica, Antigua, Malaysia, Egypt, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts, St. Lucia and the Solomon Islands.

That’s OK, I don’t expect the whole world to change yet. However, I would really like to travel freely within the confines of my own country, without fear of prejudice, rejection and even physical violence for who I am. We have a long row to hoe before that becomes a reality, and Arizona just took us back 20 years.

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