For days the media built up the hoped-for veto of a "religious freedom" bill by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. She seemed to enjoy dragging it out, and she basked in her moment in the sun live on primetime national television yesterday. But Jan Brewer taking her sweet time also helped the cause of LGBT rights in a dramatic way. It allowed activists to keep building support against discrimination and to simply have the national spotlight too. It encouraged more major corporations to weigh in against the bill, from Apple to Delta Air Lines, and it had the TV talk shows equating businesses banning service to gays to deciding not to serve any other racial or religious minority. That was a big win in the national debate, to be sure.
But let's not forget that in Arizona, it's still legal to refuse to serve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in your bakery or your photo studio for religious or any other reasons, due in no small part to Jan Brewer's hostility to LGBT rights throughout her tenure. It's legal for a landlord in Arizona to turn away LGBT people. Except in a few Arizona cities with employment protections, it's also legal for an employer to fire someone simply for being queer.
That's because Arizona has no statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing or public accommodations. And at the federal level, LGBT advocates can't even get a narrow bill with odious religious exemptions -- the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) -- passed in the GOP-controlled Congress, let alone federal protections for LGBT people in housing and public accommodations. Brewer was absolutely right when she said the "religious freedom" law was unnecessary, because religious bigots already legally discriminate against LGBT people in her state.
Nevertheless, this week the radical right and its GOP backers were beat at a game they're used to always winning, and it's divided them and sent some into fits of rage. The GOP-controlled Arizona legislature passed the bill to give some red meat to Christian evangelicals in the base during an election year. But this was a bad bill from the start, because it could be broadly interpreted to adversely affect Jews, Muslims or anyone else whom a business owner might deem offensive to his or her religious faith. That was a major misstep, and it will cost religious conservatives dearly even as they try to narrow these bills in other states. Already they've begun reassessing and even pulling the plug on similar bills in other states. It will be very difficult to change the media narrative at this point.
The backlash against this bill should also be a lesson for national LGBT groups that supported ENDA with dangerous religious exemptions: It looks hypocritical and wrongheaded to support a federal employment nondiscrimination bill that gives exemptions in hiring to some businesses, like hospitals run by religious entities, only to condemn a state bill that, in the name of "religious freedom," seeks to exempt businesses from having to serve gays. Could that be one reason that some major LGBT groups were oddly silent when the Arizona bill was passed last week?
This story blew up because of bloggers and others on social media, and it received huge momentum when major corporations -- over 80 -- rallied against the bill. The NFL was even thinking about pulling the Super Bowl from Arizona this year. Using business as a tool, especially against Republicans, often works.
So yes, it's a turning point in the national debate, and that's a big win. But when the NFL threatens to pull the Super Bowl from Arizona simply because the state still hasn't passed a nondiscrimination law protecting LGBT people, then I'll see it as a truly huge victory.
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