Taking Fire In Arizona

by Alec Torres
Group behind religious freedom bill becomes a target.

As she spoke on the phone with National Review, Cathi Herrod was interrupted. Protestors and news media were outside of her building; staff members were trying to get through to her. For the past few days, hundreds have protested at Arizona’s state Capitol against the law her organization proposed. Today, they were outside of her office.

Herrod is the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, an evangelical Christian organization devoted to defending life, marriage, the family, and religious liberty. Nowadays, they are best known for being the originators of Arizona’s SB 1062, the proposed law that would allow individuals to refuse to provide services for events against their religious principles.

“People think this law would enable a restaurant to refuse serving homosexuals, or a teacher religiously opposed to divorce to not teach a child with divorced parents,” Herrod tells me. “This law wouldn’t enable claims like that to be made. Opponents found a way to get a foothold and lambaste the bill for unrelated reasons and carry the day.”

In recent days, SB 1062 has been the center of widespread, national controversy. News outlets from Slate to CNN have taken positions against the law, overtly or not, and Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican, is expected to veto the legislation.

Yet the controversy surrounding the bill — and the distortion of the bill by politicians and the media — seem to have taken Herrod by surprise.

The Center for Arizona Policy first decided to make religious freedom more legislatively clear after the Elane Photography case in New Mexico, where Elaine Huguenin was charged with discrimination for refusing to photograph a same-sex “commitment ceremony.”

“Around the country we saw increased hostility toward people of faith,” Herrod says. “Our understanding was that in the Elane lawsuit, one of the issues was the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act did not apply to the case because the government was not a party to the lawsuit.”

In order to protect religious freedom in Arizona, the Center for Arizona Policy proposed what is now SB 1062 in order to ensure religious freedom protections in cases where the government isn’t involved.

“This does not create any new legal rights,” Herrod says. “It only clarifies that these rights apply to private actions.”

After debate and hearings in both houses of the state legislature, the bill was passed by the Arizona House and Senate on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, respectively.

It was right then that things began to “explode,” as Herrod put it. People in the tourist industry were worried that, following the passage of the bill, tourists would boycott Arizona, in the same way that the state was boycotted after the passage of its controversial immigration bill in 2010.

Then “it snowballed overnight,” as businesses turned sour and the media pushed increasingly ridiculous portrayals of the proposed law.

I asked Herrod if she believes reports that Brewer will veto the law. “It is incredibly difficult for the governor,” she says. “She’s a woman of faith, she’s a woman who’s strong, but the political upheaval has gotten beyond the pale.

As the protest began to dissipate outside her office, Herrod told me that, as she sees it, the perception of the law has now become the reality. But the real issue is “the First Amendment, the first freedom,” Herrod says. “We should have the right to live out our religious beliefs. That’s what’s at stake here, and this is a wake-up call.”

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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