When the Arizona legislature passed its so-called “religious freedom” bill last week, history repeated itself in a state that has a shameful past of discrimination.
The proposal, known as SB 1062, allows businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians on the basis of religious faith. I am appalled that my state would, once again, attempt to make life harder for a minority group at a time when other states are moving towards inclusion.
Last week, I stood on the floor of the legislature with a sign that read “No Gays Allowed.” If Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signs this bill into law, we can expect to see these signs all over the state.
Sadly, Arizona is close to becoming the first state to usher in this new era of segregation. But we’re not alone. Many Republicans are frightened by the growing public support for equal rights gays and lesbians, and to strike back, they are seeking to implement these “religious freedom” bills in states across the country.
It’s important to remember that sixty years ago, those who sought to defend racial segregation did so on religious grounds. The Bible, they argued, created blacks separate from whites.
Former Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist, once said that "our Southern segregation way is the Christian way."
Today, Republicans are utilizing the guise of religious liberty once again. Supporters of this bill framed their arguments in the same way as many defenders of Jim Crow laws did two generations ago.
"It's about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith,” Arizona state Sen. Steve Yarborough (R) said last week.
I have spoken with Republicans from the business community who oppose this bill because they know it will make developing new businesses and tourism in Arizona much harder. After the passage of SB 1070, which essentially sanctioned racial profiling, Arizona faced a boycott from national Latino organizations and companies avoided bringing their business to a state where their employees could be discriminated against.
The state lost $141 million in economic activity from cancelled conventions alone in the months after SB 1070’s passage, according to a study commissioned by the Center for American Progress.
When Arizona’s government refused to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the early 1990s, the state faced a boycott and lost out on the 1993 Super Bowl. The state is slated host the Super Bowl in 2015, and the host committee has come out forcefully against SB 1062.
Despite this bill, I am optimistic that our state is changing for the better. Latino representation in the state’s predominantly-white political structure has grown. And a growing number of Republicans have urged Gov. Brewer to veto the law, including both of our U.S. senators and three lawmakers who initially voted for the bill.
For now, though, we are left with the harrowing possibility that this bill could turn our gay and lesbian friends into second-class citizens.
I will spend the next few days protesting outside our state capitol. I will work to convince Republicans to join me in the hope that we can persuade Gov. Brewer make a final decision to veto this bill.
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R), a man who embodied Arizona’s libertarian streak, was not kind to religious zealots who wanted to impose their will on the country. “I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism," he said in 1981.
Today, I’m hopeful that Gov. Brewer will resist the wishes of our state’s extreme elements and ensure that Arizona doesn’t enact this
State Representative Ruben Gallego (D) is Assistant Minority Leader in the Arizona House of Representatives.