Gunfight at the Rainbow Corral: Arizona’s “Right to Discriminate” Bill
Arizona’s draconian bill to give people the right to discriminate based on their religious beliefs passed the House and Senate. The national disapproval that followed showed how out of touch this warped thinking is.
Send lawyers, guns, and money, the shit has hit the fan. – Warren Zevon
And the man at the back said everyone attack,
And it turned into a ballroom blitz.
And the girl in the corner said boy, I wanna warn ya
It’ll turn into a ballroom blitz… – The Sweet
This should have been one story, a piece on the attempts of the Religious Right to pass pro-discrimination laws and their failures at doing so. But sometimes things get pretty weird on the front lines, especially for a journalist always chasing a story and last Friday, Arizona seemed poised to make the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” a law; it passed the House and Senate and made its way to Governor Brewer’s desk, awaiting her signature.
Within 48 hours, the national press exploded, with CNN, MSNBC, and other major networks running continual coverage of it. George Takei was on the wire, calling out the state and threatening a boycott if the bill passed. The NFL threatened to pull the Super Bowl from Arizona, potentially costing the state millions in revenues.
Even several state legislators who voted for the bill were gnashing their teeth into the nearest microphone, grumbling to the press that this bill wasn’t what they intended. Whether they had a genuine change of heart or were caving into public pressure due to the upcoming elections is anyone’s guess.
Not all of them were repentant of their mistakes, notably State Senator Al Melvin who appeared on CNN in an interview with Anderson Cooper.
Cooper asked Melvin to name one instance that happened in Arizona that would require a law such as this to protect. Melvin couldn’t come up with one single case. He insisted that the bill had nothing to do with discrimination, but was “nothing more or nothing less than protecting religious freedoms in our state and we take that very seriously.”
While the national media took notice and state legislators were put on the defensive to defend or renounce their votes, the activism community in Arizona quickly took the helm, with HERO (a local activist group) cranking things up within 24 hours of the legislature’s vote. The main attraction occurred on Monday with a massive rally at the capitol building.
According to several people who were there in the midst of the action, the capitol lawn was packed with estimates between 1,000 and 1,500 in attendance.
Phoenix Berliner, one of the demonstrators, said, “People flew in from other states to be there. CNN had a camera on a sort-of remote control helicopter buzzing our heads and used video of us as their Breaking News footage, which was awesome! Everyone was so fired up and we were wonderfully loud, chanting in unison. Brendan Pantilione, Lee Walters and Erica Keppler, among others, did a great job of keeping the crowd fired up and loud. The love and community support was amazing!
A march was organized for yesterday night, which had a turnout estimated to be anywhere from 800-1700 people strong. This night was indescribably powerful for me. Out Senator Demion Clinco echoed my sentiments that this movement was exceedingly hopeful during his speech. It was brought up that news of our protest had spread internationally. We were loud and proud, yelling about how Arizona is better than our legislation has made us out to be and how this bill legalizes discrimination against everyone, not just the LGBTQ community, and we are fighting for equality for ALL citizens of Arizona. Several faith organizations and people of faith showed up, proclaiming that this bill does not reflect their religious standards in the slightest and that they are just as appalled by this bill as secular folk. HRC and One Community shared news about the large number of businesses who had already come out in opposition to the bill, hanging signs on their storefronts that said something akin to “We are open to all!” There was another round of great speeches by notable people.
We marched slowly around the Capitol, to the beat of some terrific drummers, and paused halfway, in front of another entrance to the building, screaming and hollering even louder. When we got back to the front of the building, we kept the energy up. I heard our voices chanting in unison so powerfully that it reverberated off the Capitol’s walls and echoed our passion for Arizona back to us and it gave me chills.”
Sean-Michael Gettys, another demonstrator there, reported, “I was happy to see people of all stripes; families, people of color, a variety of faiths and ages and economic status was represented. I was unable to understand the speakers because if they had a sign language interpreter it wouldn’t have mattered as I couldn’t see where they were standing mid grass.”
The real beauty of the rally and the activism surrounding all this has been the independent nature of it. According to Mike Shipley, a prominent queer libertarian activist out there, it has been nearly completely divorced from Gay, Inc. and the big money behind it. He told me, “It had the original gay liberation spirit, no corporations attached”. Yes, it seems the full Colors were blazing in Arizona and the spirit of Stonewall was alive and well.
I hoped to hear from Ira Bohm-Sanchez, one of the most radical Trans* activists out there, I knew he was deep into all of it and could provide me with some killer detail. But alas, he seemed on the verge of collapse from exhaustion and was unable to get any details to me.
One thing that Ira did say about the bill was a brief open letter addressed to the Governor;
Governor Jan Brewer,
Can you please veto this, because I move on Monday and I’m falling behind on homework. I have other things I’d like to get done, and while I enjoy getting together with my communities, I’d really prefer to just live my life.
Please with sugar on top,
The rally Monday night was planned to be just the beginning, Governor Brewer had until Saturday to act on the law, either sign it or veto it and the brothers and sisters out there were ready to keep the place rocking until it came to a close. There was a drag queen overnight planned for Wednesday, a Chik-Fil-A Blockade planned for Saturday, and other events scheduled. It was going be a Colors waving fight all the way to the end.
Outside of the street action, local businesses began to take notice as well with a campaign started to post signs on places of business reading “Open for Business to Everyone!” According to Mike Shipley, Ollie Vaughn’s in Phoenix was the first business to do this with a big banner reading “We Gayfully serve LGBT”.
But what would this bill mean for businesses? I talked to local cabbie Gavin Turnbow who told me, “From my point of view as a cab driver, it’s going to suck. If the economy here tanks anymore in regards to the tourism and convention industries, such as hospitality, night life, conventions, and all of the fringe hospitality services such as bars, clubs, strip clubs, cabs and all the rest of it, we’re really going to be put under. We are the ones that are ultimately going to suffer should the boycott happen. Now in regards to the bill itself, I have my pride tattooed on my forearm. I have the full 8 colors of the original flag on my forearm, as well as the symbols of my faith with Wicca and Asatru. For the businesses that would decline me should they I know who and what I am, it is immediately apparent, & I will be turned away without a thought, I’m assuming. Thankfully there are not many businesses here which would actually take advantage of this laws allowance of discrimination.”
Sean-Michael offered his view of the bill itself, “People who support this bill want to play like it is all about religious freedom but then they ignore statements by the creators of this bill specifically staying they want to be able to turn away LGBT clients and patrons, they refused to allow religion to be defined as inclusive of all religions, and voted down amendments that would have made it so EMTs, hospital workers, teachers, and police couldn’t refuse to serve certain people. If it’s not about discrimination, why did they refuse to include religions like Wicca?”
That does seem to be the underlying thing here, the sources I talked to all pointed to the Religious Right as being the true architects of this bill, with several referencing CAP (Center for Arizona Policy) and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), two organizations that are heavies in Arizona politics, particularly in the Republican Party. The effects of this remain to be seen in the upcoming elections.
Supporters of the bill have been mostly silent, although the Williams Tea Party of Coconino County issued a statement defending the bill and offering a bizarre interpretation of the Constitution, saying “The First Amendment was meant only to protect the Christian faith. When the founders spoke of religion, they meant the Christian religion.” Perhaps they should do some more studying on the Founding Fathers, paying particular attention to Thomas Jefferson and his views on religious liberty.
I attempted to contact a local street preacher I knew out there. He had been offering some views in support of the bill online, but he declined my offer. Maybe he only speaks to journalists who reply “Amen!” to his every statement. Ah well, C’est la vie.
Wednesday night, I decided to take a break from this insanity after spending the past 48 hours gathering sources and finish the story later when Phoenix got a hold of me, telling me Governor Brewer had called a press conference regarding the bill. I still had several sources I was waiting to hear back from, but with the ending possibly just a few short moments away, I realized I may have to finish this story without them.
I pulled up the live feed and lit a cigarette, my heart racing at a thousand miles an hour, hoping this was all about to end. On the live feed, while waiting for the governor, one of the reporters present was overheard saying “Isn’t journalism fun, kids?”
At around 7:45 PM EST, Governor Brewer appeared and officially vetoed Arizona’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”, bringing this strange saga to a close.