The uproar over the religious freedom bill vetoed Wednesday by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer is expected to have a chilling effect on the handful of similar bills making their way through other state legislatures.
Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union said they were cheered by the veto during a telephone press briefing Thursday, calling it a “thrilling day for equality,” but said that they’re keeping an eye on bills in other states, including Georgia, Mississippi and Missouri.
“These proposals would create a license to discriminate,” said Rose Saxe, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project. “A significant majority of them are not about cakes and wedding services, as the other side would have us think, but are actually about all aspects of LGBT people’s lives.”
At least seven other states have seen similar bills either killed or withdrawn this year. The most prominent was a Kansas bill that would have allowed business owners to refuse service to customers based on their religious beliefs, which stalled in the state Senate after a similar outcry from gay rights groups.
Many of those defeats, culminating in the Arizona veto, came after gay rights groups successfully defined the bills as pro-discrimination, declaring they would allow businesses to return to the days of Jim Crow laws in the South. The bill was also vociferously opposed by the state’s leading business groups and corporations.
Proponents of the measures insisted that the bills would do nothing of the sort. The measures were originally proposed to protect business owners from being forced to violate their religious beliefs by catering to gay weddings or risk losing their licenses.
Joe La Rue, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, said that argument has been largely drowned out by the media outcry.
“[W]hen they started talking about, ‘This bill is going to turn us back to the days of Jim Crow, and you’re going to have people kicked out of restaurants, and you’re going to have people dying in the streets because doctors won’t treat them — nobody wants that,” said Mr. La Rue. “Frankly, the supporters of the bill don’t want that, and they would never do that.”
Once that message took root, however, “the bill was doomed,” he said.
A number of legal analysts have called the Arizona bill unremarkable and certainly not radical, saying that its primary purpose was to align the state’s existing religious freedom law with the federal law.
At least 26 states now have such laws, known as “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts,” or RFRAs, which were passed in the mid-1990s after the federal law was approved in 1993. At the time, the ACLU strongly supported the federal law.
Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said the ACLU still supports the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but has become “deeply concerned about its misuse.”
“The issue we’re seeing now with the federal RFRA was not contemplated by us and certainly wasn’t reflected in legislative history in terms of how RFRA is being used to try to take away the rights of others,” said Ms. Amiri.
The Arizona bill also closed a loophole used by the New Mexico Supreme Court in ruling against a Christian photographer who declined to take photos for a gay wedding, said Mr. La Rue. Despite the veto, he noted that the Arizona’s original religious-freedom law is still on the books.
Proponents have recently discussed offering more narrowly tailored bills that would deal specifically with artisans in the wedding industry, such as photographers and bakers, but Ms. Saxe said the ACLU would oppose those efforts as well.