Arizona’s Religious Protection Bill Is A Good Idea, But Is It Dangerous?

“If people are informed they will do the right thing. It’s when they are not informed that they become hostages to prejudice.” – Charlayne Hunter Gault

How do you know when a line has been crossed? What does it take to spark fear in your mind that what is being done is ill-conceived, or even misguided? Generally speaking, it is easy for me to make judgments based on my morals, which have been forged in the fire of the word of God. In most circumstances, I can discern the correct direction with relative ease. That is not to say that it is always easy for me to follow through with the decision I’ve made. However, the initial thought process which brought me to my conclusion is generally simple enough. But sometimes, what seems right, and, moreover, what I know is in fact right, isn’t a safe path on which to tread.

The Arizona state legislature just passed a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to particular people if serving those customers violated their religious beliefs. More specifically, the bill would allow the religious business owner to claim in court that their decision to refuse service was based on religious grounds.

The inciting incident which spawned this bill is a legal battle in New Mexico. In the case of Elane Photography vs. Vanessa Willock, Willock sued Elane Huguenin for refusing to photograph her lesbian wedding. Despite Elane Huguenin claiming that her refusal was based in the fact that she is a Christian, she lost the suit. This is not the only time something like this has happened recently. As a result of this case, Republicans in the Arizona legislature crafted SB1062. SB1062 is designed to protect religious business owners from being forced to compromise their faith simply because their service is legally defined as a “public accommodation.”

SB1062 has caused quite an uproar. Liberals are alleging that it is an “anti-gay” law, and that it is simply masked discrimination. When I first read the unending comments on my news feed, I just assumed that my liberal friends were overreacting, which is a very common thing. However, once I read the revisions to the law, and read comments made by the author of the law, Rep. Steve Yarbrough, I got a bit nervous. According to Howard Fischer, of the (Sierra Vista) Herald:

“Yarbrough said it’s possible that, under the terms of his legislation a hotel owner could turn away a gay couple without fear of suit simply because there are other nearby facilities.”

And, more directly, from the mouth of Yarbrough himself:

“It’s a fact-intensive question in those instances when you’ve got the preference that we’ve got for public accommodation and the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. How does the friction play out?”

Again, from Fischer:

“…Yarbrough said a pharmacist who is a devout Catholic should not be forced to be a part of what he or she believes is someone’s immoral act [selling the Plan B abortion pill]…but Yarbrough said that he could foresee situations in which the case might be a closer call, as in examples as the photographer and the hotel.”

So, what does all of this mean? How does this play out, and why does it make me a bit nervous, despite being a wildly conservative Republican in all things? Despite what the looney liberals are claiming, this law was clearly crafted to protect the religious rights of Americans, not to discriminate against gays. Any claim to the contrary is ludicrous. However, the law is frighteningly open to interpretation. And by that, I mean misinterpretation. Let’s take a look at the hotel situation that Yarbrough himself said could be a potential problem. If a small town hotel were to refuse service to a gay person simply on the basis of their being gay, could the defense of religious freedom be accepted? Where does the right of refusal stop? It’s very understandable for a photographer to refuse to participate in a gay wedding, because their accommodation requires involvement in a process which they find to be morally offensive. But if an accommodation does not require involvement in an activity which is thought of as morally offensive, would the law still apply? The bill is openly worded enough to make me think that the previous situation is possible. Probable? Maybe not. But possible? Definitely.

Our right to practice our faith is guaranteed. It is also of paramount importance. If we lose that right, we will die as a nation. We cannot survive as a country if the right to practice our faith is anything less than sacred. Given that, I support this bill wholeheartedly. Elane Huguenin has been railroaded, and her court loss chills me to the core. However, this bill, and the particular way in which it has been written, also gives me pause. SB1062 is not “anti-gay,” and it is not a veiled attempt at discrimination, from the minds of secretly hateful people. Those claiming that are either ignorant, or hateful themselves toward those of faith. But this bill does make me nervous.

Where religious freedom clashes with respect for humanity, I become frightened. Refusing photography services is not a degrading act. It is not done out of cruelty, or a lack of respect for human beings. It is done to protect faith. Refusing to serve a gay person at a restaurant, or provide them with a room because you are offended by an act you believe to be morally wrong is another story. That, to me, seems cruel, and it seems a gesture that is not based in Godly love, but in human hatred. This bill—though written with good intent—could result in bad consequences. And it is in that way that I don’t agree with it.