Lawmakers in Arizona say a religious-freedom bill is supposed to address religious freedom, so their plan this year to close down a loophole is no more than affirming what’s already the law.
The issue is whether, as has happened in several other states, Christians can be sued or penalized for abiding by their faith while they do their business.
Specifically, in Washington and Colorado, bakeries have been sued for refusing to use their artistry to promote same-sex marriage. A photographer in New Mexico was put in the bull’s-eye by homosexual activists for the same reason.
Now Arizona’s House Bill 2153 is headed for Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk, after it was approved by the state Legislature.
It allows individuals to use their faith as a defense against a lawsuit. It would expand the state’s definition of the exercise of religion to include the practice and observance, and allow for legal claims of free exercise regardless whether the government is a party to any proceeding.
It also would protect “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization” and allow them to establish a free exercise defense by affirming that an action is motivated by a religious belief, that belief is sincerely held it is substantially burdened.
“We are trying to protect people’s religious liberties,” Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, told the Arizona Republic. “We don’t want the government coming in and forcing somebody to act against their religious sacred faith beliefs or having to sell out if you are a small-business owner.”
Arizona appears to be the first state to take such action, even though disputes already have developed in several other states.
Similar legislative efforts in Kansas, South Dakota and several other states were proposed, but apparently have stalled in the process.
Oregon interests are trying to handle their situation with a ballot initiative.
Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, told the Republic the bill would result in discrimination.
“This bill is going to hurt the LGBT community,” he said.
But sponsor Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, pointed out that the state has no law providing special class protection for the homosexual community.
“You guys are trying to make this something that doesn’t exist. These are small changes,” he charged.
The Center for Arizona Policy, which has endorsed the idea being assembled in the legislation, said it was a change that was needed.
“Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been on the books since 1999. This bill seeks to simply close loopholes within this law that might jeopardize a person’s free exercise of religion in Arizona,” the organization explains.
“It clarifies that a person may assert a RFRA claim if his/her religious exercise is likely to be burdened. A person should not have to wait to assert a claim if there is a strong likelihood that that person’s religious exercise will be burdened by a state action.”
Josh Kredit, the center’s legal counsel, told the Republic the state is just trying to ensure people “are able to live and work according to their faith.”
WND has reported the most recent fight to develop over religious rights was in Colorado, where a state appointee overruled a business owner’s religious faith and ordered him to provide a wedding cake to a same-sex duo.
The state’s constitution doesn’t recognize “same-sex marriage,” but officials with the Alliance Defending Freedom said it simply was the government imposing “a new belief system upon [bakery owner] Jack [Phillips], one that is fundamentally at odds with his conscience and his liberty.”
The complaint to the state’s Civil Rights Division was filed by two homosexuals who wanted Phillips to provide them with a wedding cake.
Phillips offered to provide other products but, citing his own Christian beliefs, declined to produce a message on a wedding cake that conflicted with his faith.
Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer, however, ordered Phillips, on pain of fines or even jail time, to violate his faith and provide the wedding cake to homosexuals Charlie Craig and David Mullins.
Now ADF has asked the state to correct the “erroneous” ruling, filing a notice of appeal and petition for review to the commission.
Spencer was wrong, ADF contends, because “the ALJ’s recommendation that respondents ‘[c]ease and desist from discriminating against complainants and other same-sex couples by refusing to sell them wedding cakes or any other product respondents would provide to heterosexual couples’ is overbroad and exceeds the scope of relief authorized [under state law.].”
ADF said the issue in the case cuts to the basics of freedom in America.
“America was founded on the fundamental freedom of all citizens to live and work without fear of government punishment,” said Nicolle Martin, lead counsel in the case.
Phillips explained to WND there are cakes for other circumstances he also would refuse to make.
“If a couple were to come in and ask me to do an erotic cake for a wedding, I would refuse to do that as well,” he said. “These are my personal standards taken from Jesus Christ and the Bible.”
Spencer’s ruling said Phillips’ constitutional rights are secondary, because otherwise the “cost to society” isn’t considered. He granted homosexuals a special standard.
But the ACLU, which is representing the duo, said the same standard should not be used in other circumstances, such as asking a Muslim baker to make a cake criticizing his faith or asking a black cake maker to make a cake for the KKK.
Those bakers, because of their beliefs, would be allowed to refuse service, Spencer said.
Spencer bluntly offered cake makers an alternative to doing his will: They can quit.
“If … respondents choose to quit making wedding cakes altogether to avoid future violations of the law, that is a matter of personal choice and not a result compelled by the state,” he wrote.
Special rights for homosexuals have been the subject of several cases in recent years. In New Mexico, judges ruled that a Christian wedding photographer must surrender her religious beliefs as the price of good citizenship, in a case that remains on appeal.
And in Washington state, another baker shut down operations after being accused of discrimination under that state’s rules that provide special consideration for homosexuals.