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Church State Issues

Valley churchgoers react to controversial SB 1062

Mar 1, 2014

Arizona Republic

By Jackee Coe and J.T. Reid The Republic | azcentral.com Mon Feb 24, 2014 12:12 AM

Valley churchgoers took time on Sunday to express a variety of opinions on the controversial right to refuse service bill passed by the state Legislature last week.

Some felt the bill is not representative of Christian values and would legalize discrimination. Others believe it would go a long ways the strengthen people’s right to stand for what they believe in.

While many Valley churches have not publicly taken a stance on the bill and several declined comment Sunday, leaders at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Phoenix denounced it as discrimination. If signed, they believe Episcopalians would not be able to practice their faith as God intended.

SB 1062 would, among other things, allow business owners to deny service to someone based on religious beliefs and allow individuals to use religious beliefs as a defense against a lawsuit. [My understanding is that it would allow the employees of a business to discriminate against customers for religious reasons. An employee of a drug store thinks sex without marriage is wrong could refuse to sell birth control pills to an unmarried woman. Even if the owner demanded that the employee sell everybody that came in birth control pills. ]

“There is a threat to the way that we practice our religion because it would create a spirit of animosity in the state that is not needed,” said the Very Reverend Troy Mendez. “Even though it is disguised as religious freedom, what it’s really doing is giving people the license to discriminate and we feel that that’s wrong.”

The bill proposes to expand the state’s definition of the exercise of religion to include both the practice and observance of religion. It also would allow someone to assert a legal claim of free exercise of religion regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceedings. The legislation would expand those protected under the state’s free-exercise-of-religion law to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.”

In order to assert a free-exercise-of-religion defense, the individual, business or church must establish that its action is motivated by a religious belief, that the belief is sincerely held and that the belief is substantially burdened, according to the legislation.

The state Legislature passed the bill Feb. 20 with overwhelming Republican support, and it will move to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk this week for her to sign into law or veto.

Opponents of the bill, including business leaders and gay and lesbian activists, have lobbied intensely, staging demonstrations at the state Capitol and urging the governor through Twitter to veto the bill. They argue the law would permit outright discrimination.

On the other side, social conservatives who characterize the bill as a religious-freedom bill have urged her to sign the bill they say would ensure individuals and businesses are not forced to act against their religious convictions.

Several congregants at Trinity Episcopal took issue with the assertion that religious freedom is under siege. Congregant Michael Bray said the First Amendment already exists to protect people of all faiths.

“We don’t need extra laws and this is something that is just a waste of taxpayer money, something that supposedly the Republicans are against,” he said. “They’re doing this frivolous and silly law that is going to do more to separate everybody than it is to bring people together.”

His wife, Victoria Bray, agreed, saying “doing it under the mask of religion is just kind of cruel.”

“We’re people of faith and there is nothing Christian in the values that they’re trying to express at all,” she said. “I have yet to hear them talk about love thy neighbor and love thy self.”

Emmanuel Gallardo, a parishioner at Saint Matthew’s Catholic Church in Phoenix, said the bill contradicts the example Jesus set.

“Jesus loved and respected everybody in his time, especially the marginalized people, and so for a law to be based on religious freedom which discriminates against the LGBT community I think is hypocritical,” he said. “It’s disgusting that people are using religious freedom to discriminate against others.”

But not all churchgoers oppose the bill.

But Tim Statezny, who attends Roosevelt Community Church in Phoenix, said that the bill is a step in the right direction to counter a society that he believes is becoming more secular.

“In my opinion, it is not healthy for society to promote what God has said is sinful,” he said. “People should be able to make that choice on their own,” without the threat of being sued.

Statezny said Christians should be able to stand up for their beliefs and people have “a right to earn a living in a way that you choose as long as it’s legal.”

Trinity Episcopal congregant Robert Rod said he hopes Brewer doesn’t sign the bill, calling it “very divisive.” He said it is the latest in a series of actions the state has taken that have been “very discriminatory.”

Fellow Trinity congregant Wayne Triplett called the bill a "step backwards for the state," but was optimistic that Brewer will not pass it.

Leaders at the church Brewer attends, Life of Christ Lutheran Church in Peoria, would not speak publicly about the bill. A church official would not allow The Republic to interview any of the congregants.