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Freedom or oppression? That’s the question for Arizona’s SB1062

Arizona flag

Arizona’s SB1062 has pulled off a sort of political magic trick, in that warring sides can read the bill’s text and have not only different reactions, but completely opposite ones.

While proponents of gay rights dub the bill oppressive, those in favor of the bill becoming law say it represents freedom.

Freedom vs. oppression: That’s the polar contrast Gov. Jan Brewer must consider as she sits down to “listen to both sides” this week ahead of her decision whether to sign or veto the bill that has divided her state and drawn national and commercial interests into the fray.

Brewer has until Saturday to make her call, and her fellow Republicans in the state Legislature have suggested that a veto is likely.

In short, SB1062 would amend the existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allowing business owners to deny service to gay and lesbian customers so long as proprietors were acting solely on their religious beliefs.

The bill’s advocates insist that those claiming SB1062 amounts to bigotry and discrimination have hijacked and misrepresented its aims.

“The attacks on SB1062 show politics at its absolute worse. They represent precisely why so many people are sick of the modern political debate. Instead of having an honest discussion about the true meaning of religious liberty, opponents of the bill have hijacked this discussion through lies, personal attacks, and irresponsible reporting,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, which lent a hand in scribing the bill.

Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which also helped craft the bill, called SB1062 a “balancing test” that would protect all religions and sexual orientations while prohibiting Arizonans from “coercing someone to violate their sincerely held beliefs.”

“This bill has nothing to do with discrimination. It’s protecting basic freedoms that belong to everyone,” she said, explaining that it would protect a gay photographer’s decision not to work for Westboro Baptist Church, or Muslims who don’t want to sell “pork sandwiches on a Saturday.”

Brewer has a history

A dreadnought of the conservative cause, Brewer rarely shies from controversy and, often in the face of staunch political and economic backlash, has boldly defended her stances on the economy, gun rights, regulation, taxation, immigration and even wagging her finger in the face of President Barack Obama.

“I don’t rely a whole lot on my gut because I have to look at what (the bill) says and what the law says and take that information and do the right thing,” she said from the National Governors Association’s winter meeting in Washington. “I will do the right thing for the state of Arizona.”

But since Thursday, when the state House of Representatives OK’d the bill by a 33-27 margin and sent it to Brewer’s desk, what’s right for Arizona has become somewhat amorphous.

Already, three GOP senators who voted in favor of SB1062, including a co-sponsor, Sen. Bob Worsley, have changed their minds. The bill passed the state Senate 17-13 with the “yea” votes of the three senators.

“While our sincere intent in voting for the bill was to create a shield for all citizens’ religious liberties, the bill has instead been mischaracterized by its opponents as a sword for religious intolerance. These allegations are causing our state immeasurable harm,” Worsley and Sens. Adam Driggs and Steve Pierce said in a letter sent to Brewer on Monday.

“As Arizona leaders we feel it is important to loudly proclaim that we strongly condemn discrimination in any form,” the letter said.

Backlash bubbles up

The National Football League, which has scheduled Super Bowl XLIX for the Phoenix suburb of Glendale next year, has a like stance, and league spokesman Brian McCarthy issued a Monday statement to that effect, saying, “We are following the issue in Arizona and will continue to do so should the bill be signed into law, but will decline further comment at this time.”

The state’s own Super Bowl Host Committee was more blunt in its statement, which said it strives to promote “economic vitality” and “adoption of this legislation would not only run contrary to that goal but deal a significant blow to the state’s economic growth potential. We do not support this legislation.”

A few Fortune 500 companies concur, as Marriott warned Brewer in a letter that the legislation “would have profound negative impacts on the hospitality industry,” and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told the governor that signing the bill “would jeopardize all that has been accomplished so far.”

Apple, which is building a glass plant in Mesa that’s slated to create hundreds of jobs, said Monday that it, too, was urging Brewer to veto SB1062.

The state Chamber of Commerce and Greater Phoenix Economic Council have come out against the bill as well, and local businesses in Tucson and Phoenix have also taken strong stances.

Scott Koehler of Phoenix FASTSIGNS has printed off dozens of signs saying “Open for business to everyone,” which he’s giving away to businesses. In Tucson, Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizzeria took to its Facebook page to post a photo of a sign reading, “We reserve the right to refuse service to Arizona legislators.”

But while opposition to the bill has been loud — and has included the condemnations of John McCain and Jeff Flake, the state’s Republican U.S. senators — there are those who say the bill is vital in a nation that has increasingly turned hostile toward religion.

Whom does it protect?

Said the Center for Arizona Policy’s Herrod, “Simply put, the fear-mongering from opponents is unrelated to the language of the bill, and proves that hostility towards people of faith is very real. It’s a shame we even need a bill like this in America. But growing hostility against freedom in our nation, and the increasing use of government to threaten and punish its own citizens, has made it necessary.”

State Sen. Al Melvin, a hopeful to succeed Brewer, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Arizona was a “people friendly” state and that SB1062 was merely a “pre-emptive” measure that would prevent attacks on religion in the future.

“All of the pillars of society are under attack in the United States: the family, the traditional family, traditional marriage, mainline churches, the Boy Scouts, you name it,” he said.

Asked if he could cite specific examples of attacks on Arizonans’ freedom of religion, Melvin replied, “Not now, no, but what about tomorrow?”

Pressed further about whether the bill could be used to deny service to divorcees or unwed mothers on religious grounds, he scoffed.

“I think you’re being farfetched,” he told Cooper. “Who would discriminate against them? I’ve never heard of discrimination against people like that. … I don’t know of anybody in Arizona that would discriminate against a fellow human being.”

Arizona constitutionally outlawed same-sex marriages in 2008, and legal experts say nothing in present Arizona law would prevent a business owner from discriminating against gays and lesbians, making SB1062 unnecessary.

Brewer alluded to these provisions in an interview after SB1062 was passed last week.

“I think anybody that owns a business can choose who they work with or who they don’t work with,” she said.

While Arizonans on both sides of the issue, as well as the nation at large, keep keen eyes on Phoenix as Brewer ponders her decision, the governor has hinted that the issue, for her, may come down to whether the ban or protection of freedom — depending on how you view it — needs to be enshrined in state law.

“I don’t know that it needs to be statutory. In my life and in my businesses, if I don’t want to do business or if I don’t want to deal with a particular company or person or whatever, I’m not interested. That’s America. That’s freedom.”

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