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Topics In the News
The Religious Right's Overreach
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/27/14
Last updated on: 02/27/14
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Arizona Governor Jan Brewer.

The attempt to codify discrimination via so-called "religious liberty" laws may have backfired on the religious right, as indicated by the backlash against the Arizona bill vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer on February 26, 2014. The bill was part of a concerted push by conservative Christians to present themselves as victims of "gay bullies." But the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it by a wide range of Americans, including Republicans, and especially businesses, indicates that the ploy not only fooled no one, but it also exposed a widening rift within conservative circles. It may be that even a considerable fraction of the Republican Party now views the religious right, and its viciously anti-gay agenda, as more of a liability than an asset.

The bill passed by the Arizona legislature on February 20, 2014 would have permitted businesses and individuals to discriminate against gay people and others as a matter of religious belief. It was plainly designed to gut the human rights acts and statutes that provide some protection from discrimination for glbtq people and to give "special rights" to religious people, especially Christians.

Although the backers of the bill pretended that they had no intention to discriminate against gay people, that they were only attempting to protect "religious liberty," their pretense fooled no one.

What was surprising about the overwhelmingly negative reaction to the proposed legislation was how broadly based it was. Not only did dozens of leading corporations, from Apple to American Airlines and from Marriot Hotels to Yelp!, denounce the bill, but so did powerful organizations representing business interests such as the Chamber of Commerce also urge that it be vetoed. In addition, a host of Republicans, including both senators from Arizona--John McCain and Jeff Flake, neither of them known as supporters of gay rights--also implored the Governor to veto the bill. Even Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich denounced the legislation.

Perhaps most important from a public relations standpoint was the implied threat that the National Football League would relocate the 2015 Superbowl to a more welcoming state. A Superbowl infuses a great deal of money into the local economy, so the threat was a serious one on its own terms, but in addition it reminded the public that Arizona lost a Superbowl in 1989 as a result of its refusal to recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. That connection made clear that the issue was one of civil rights not religious rights.

The fact that prominent Republicans were so eager to distance themselves from the Arizona bill indicates a recognition on the part of at least some politicians that the party's continuing identification with the religious right may be costly.

Indeed, the controversy exposed a widening rift between the Republican Party's traditional constituencies. Business interests have rejected the anti-gay rhetoric and policies that the religious right has insisted be incorporated into the Republican Party platform. While the tea party wing of the Republican Party remains in thrall to the religious right, it is clear from the reaction to the "religious liberty" bill that the establishment wing of the Party is increasingly wary of the religious right.

The establishment wing may well be prescient to regard the religious right as a liability, for a recent poll by the New Public Religion Research Institute indicates not only increasing support for gay rights by all Americans, but that many Americans, especially young ones, are leaving churches they regard as anti-gay. This phenomenon has the potential to weaken the political power of religion in the United States, especially the political power of the religious right.

The overwhelmingly negative response to Arizona's proposed law has caused politicians in states ranging from Ohio to Mississippi to withdraw or significantly modify similar bills. Hence, some have seen the controversy over the Arizona bill as a turning point in the quest for equal rights.

It is unlikely that the religious right is going to retreat from their attempt to demonize and marginalize gay people. But the public relations victory that the veto represents ought to encourage glbtq organizations to continue to push for the enactment of the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) and other legal protections. It should also make our allies in Congress and in state legislatures more reluctant to agree to broad religious exemptions when gay rights or marriage equality bills are debated.

The real lesson that the religious right's overreach has taught is that there has emerged a wide consensus in the United States that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is wrong.

In the video below, Anderson Cooper questions the chief sponsor of the Arizona anti-gay bill.

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