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Do Religious Freedom Bills Discriminate Against LGBT?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You might have heard about controversial new legislation aimed at the LGBT community, being debated in the U.S. and abroad. The specifics are different, but there are some similarities and connections. So we're going to talk about these issues today and tomorrow. And we start the program today talking about a controversial bill in Arizona. The so-called religious freedom bill would let business owners deny services to customers based on religious conviction.

The Arizona legislature passed the bill, and now the state's governor, Jan Brewer, has until the end of the week to veto or sign it into law. Critics say the measure could lead to state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people. We wanted to know more about this, particularly since Arizona is not the only state where this type of measure is being discussed. So we called Alia Beard Rau. She's the senior legislative reporter for The Arizona Republic. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

ALIA BEARD RAU: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Jaime Fuller. She's a reporter with The Washington Post who's been following similar legislation around the country. Welcome to you as well.

JAIME FULLER: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So Alia, let's start with you. What set this particular bill off? Was there a particular incident, or what was the issue that motivated this?

RAU: There wasn't really an incident. This is actually a bill that we've seen various versions of at least the past two years. And the governors actually vetoed them for various reasons. So it's something that a conservative group in the legislature has been working on for a number of years.

MARTIN: What, exactly, would it do?

RAU: Basically, it would expand the state's existing religious protection law to include individuals and companies. So it's kind of a legal protection for somebody who faces a discrimination lawsuit. And they can use religious protection as a defense if they can prove that it's actually a sincerely held religious belief and not just kind of an excuse.

MARTIN: Jaime, as we said, Arizona is not the only state where this issue is being discussed. Can you talk about some of the other bills that are being debated around the country on this issue?

FULLER: Yeah. The interesting thing with the past month is a lot of people had been asking whether there's a momentum for these types of legislation to get passed. But there's a lot of bills that have fizzled in the past month. In Kansas, you had the Senate turn down a bill with religious freedoms protections because they thought it was legalized discrimination. In South Dakota, you had the Senate Judiciary Committee turn it down because they thought that it was a mean, vindictive bill.

One of the sponsors said that. And then in Tennessee, you had the sponsor reject his sponsorship a week ago because he didn't want to be accused of letting restaurants deny service to anyone. And then you have similar bills in Idaho that failed. And then in Ohio and Oklahoma and Hawaii and Nevada, they are also considering these bills. And just this week, Georgia has kind of stormed similar legislation.

MARTIN: You know, it's fascinating to me, Jaime, in reading your coverage, one of the things I noted is that in a number of instances, people put the bill forward and then the same people who put the bill forward brought them back or brought them back to committees for further review. And they said that they were not intending for these matters - for these bills to be - to have a discriminatory intent. So what's going on here? Is it that you think that they were kind of reacting to something and then didn't think it through? Or was there some - is there some particular group that's advising them about how to word this in such a way that it might be able to be adopted?

FULLER: Yeah, one thing that's obvious on the national level is there's a lot of backlash against these bills, whether they reach the governor's desk like they did in Arizona or whether they're just proposed. In Idaho at the beginning of February, you had 250 protesters outside the state capital protesting a religious freedoms bill that they decided to table. So you can tell that a lot of legislators they see this issue. They see that same-sex marriage bills in their state are either being struck down by courts or they're being questioned.

And they try to offer these religious freedom bills as a way to counter that. And then they see the backlash. So I think that's the main impetus for introducing them and then realizing they don't have any support for this.

MARTIN: Alia, what do you think took it over the top in Arizona? You mentioned that there had been similar attempts in the past. What were the arguments that were most persuasive in the Arizona legislation?

RAU: To get it passed, I think, you know, as we've said, it's, you know - it sounds like a very mundane bill. You're protecting religion. A lot of people are in favor of that. And so that's kind of gotten it as far as it's gone. But this year, I don't know. It's been interesting. Last year, you know, one of the senators who actually backed off of his support of it said, well, this passed last year and nobody said anything to me. You know, why are we seeing this this year? I think there some organization.

I think people got involved earlier. I think the LGBT community here has been a little bit more vocal in the past years. They're getting a little bit more organized just because of what's going on around the country. So I think that's it. There's an organization on the part of the opposition that we haven't seen in prior years.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a controversial bill in Arizona that would allow business owners to say - based on their religious convictions to deny services to LGBT people. We're talking about this with reporters Alia Beard Rau, who's covering this in Arizona, and Jaime Fuller who's been covering this nationally. Alia, the proponents of the bill say that this is an incremental change to existing religious freedom laws in the state. And others say that this would kind of actually take this a step further. And you were saying that both sides have a point. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RAU: Well, I think with the discrimination allegations, you've got the supporters saying this does not discriminate, and you've got the opponents saying this does discriminate. And in a way, legally, they're both sort of right because Arizona, under its discrimination protections, doesn't have protections for individuals based on their sexual orientation. We do have protections based on race, on disability, on gender, things like that but not based on sexual orientation.

So technically, the bill, you could argue, doesn't discriminate because there is no discrimination based on sexual orientation for the LGBT community here. But you've got the other side saying, obviously, this is discrimination based on, you know, society norms, based on, you know, how most people would see the discrimination.

MARTIN: So Republican Senator John McCain tweeted on Monday that he hopes Governor Brewer would veto the bill. And we noted that business leaders in Arizona and other people have weighed in on this. Where do you see the momentum on this issue now? And what are their arguments? That people - these kind of prominent individuals who are opposing the bill, what are they saying about it?

RAU: The momentum seems to be strongly in opposition, at least in terms of the vocal majority. You've got the business community, you've got the LGBT community, you've got John McCain, you've got Jeff Flake - both of our U.S. Senators - opposing it. A lot of Governor Brewer's advisers are recommending veto for it. So that's kind of where we're at with it - we're just sort of waiting to see with her what she's going to do. But the opposition from the business community is basically, you know - I think there's a lot of concern about how this could impact.

You know, nobody's really entirely sure about what it will do. And the business community - the best biggest concern seems to be it makes Arizona look bad. You know, look at the SP 1070 and kind of the backlash it had - a lot of people argue that SP 1070 in the end had very little actual impact, but the reputation impact was enormous.

MARTIN: Well, we're also seeing that sort of human resources - Jaime, human resources managers, for example, are saying that they would have a very hard time recommending a state that had this kind of statute in place to move a company there, particularly one that prided itself on a diverse workforce. I mean, are you seeing those kinds of voices weighing in in other parts of the country?

FULLER: Yeah, in Tennessee there was one restaurant owner who said that he wanted to start fundraising against one of the people who sponsored one of these bills in the state. And in Idaho, the attorney general said that there was going to be a constitutional challenge of this pass. So both on the political level and on the local level there are murmurs of people saying that this would have a similar impact, what people are saying it would have in Arizona.

MARTIN: But the proponents of the bill, the people who support this bill, you know, their argument is, what? That you should just not be uncomfortable? I mean, 'cause some of them initially said that what they really wanted was to protect religious groups or clergy members from being sued for declining to - or religious institutions - from declining to offer religious ceremonies or to sanction same-sex marriages, all right, that was what a number of them originally said.

So how is it that they then said that their own bills were - I don't want to use explosive language here - but were hijacked for these other purposes or they became concerned that they would then be used for other purposes? What happened there?

FULLER: Well, the interesting thing about the whole array of bills across the country is the difference in specificity 'cause you have some bills - like, there's one in Utah that's just been proposed that is explicitly for not making religious entities have to offer same-sex services. And then you have more broad ones that no one knows what would happen if they were enacted. And the fear from people who are opponents of these bills is they wonder what - how expansive they would be if they were passed.

So we might just be seeing an initial run of these types of bills. And after people withdraw them and say that we need to refrain the language, you might see in a couple of months a new spate of legislation that's tailored much more narrowly to the things that the proponents say they want to protect.

MARTIN: Alia, talk a little bit more about this - I was intrigued when you said one of the sponsors said, look, I passed this bill previously - or we advanced this bill previously and nobody said anything, what's his or - what's his reaction to this now? What does he make of it - the fact that there's kind of a change in the response to it?

RAU: Well, we have three state senators, and he was among them, who actually said I voted for the bill, I made a mistake - I want to, you know, can we pull back, can we do a revote? And the answer was, no, it's too late. But we've had, you know, those three - if there was a revote today, the bill would fail. And those three have said, you know, we didn't - made a mistake, we didn't realize, you know - I don't know if it was the backlash or the implications, but, you know, I think they were surprised by the response and by the concern, particularly from the business community. We're hearing from Apple, we're hearing from American Airlines, we're hearing from the NFL folks - we've got the Super Bowl coming next year - big money, you know, with big concerns.

MARTIN: Do you feel that the experience - you referenced SP 1070, which is a very controversial law that would address the way law-enforcement would relate to persons who are believed to be undocumented, I mean, it's been colloquially called the kind of carry your papers law - do you feel that the experience with that, which also got a lot of national attention, informs the way this debate is unfolding now?

RAU: Tremendously. I think people - obviously it was only a couple of years ago - people remember what happened with 1070, you know, regardless of what the bill actually did, there was enormous concern. The business community responded, although much later than they have this time - that's kind of been an interesting difference. And, you know, we lost money. There was, you know, money lost. There were conventions that pulled out of Arizona. There was tourism dollars that we lost. And particularly right now, you know, the governor's big marketing issue is bringing business to Arizona. Arizona is a good place for business and the business community is saying this is going to hurt that.

MARTIN: Alia Beard Rau is the senior legislative reporter with The Arizona Republic, with us from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Jamie Fuller is a reporter for The Washington Post. She was nice enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

FULLER: Thank you.

RAU: Thank you.

MARTIN: And I do want to mention that we'll be speaking with a Ugandan activist about controversial new laws in his country that impose stiff penalties for homosexual activity. That conversation is tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.