NEW YORK -- On Wednesday the Senate in Arizona passed legislation that would allow businesses and state employees to deny services to any customer based on their religious beliefs.
Pushed through by the state’s Republican majority, proponents of the Bill argued that it was required to protect business owners from legal action should they refuse to offer services on religious grounds. However, opponents contended that the legislation was tantamount to state-backed discrimination, with same-sex couples the most likely target.
In November, the UK Supreme Court ruled against Peter and Hazelmary Bull, devout Christians who refused a gay couple lodgings in their bed and breakfast hotel because it “violated their faith”. The Bulls were challenging an earlier court decision that forced them to pay £5,000 in damages, with the case going someway to clarify Britain’s current legal standing on matters of sexual orientation versus religious liberty.
In the US, the question of equal rights versus religious convictions is far less settled, with predominantly conservative state legislatures currently looking to push back against the federal overturning of a ban on same-sex marriage last June.
The Arizona Bill states: "Exercise of religion means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief."
In opposition, Arizona Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar described the Bill as "discrimination under the guise of religious freedom," adding, "with the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation". Senator Steve Yarbrough, one of Bill's sponsors, rejected Tovar’s evaluation, arguing that it serves to “prevent discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith".
Similar legislation designed the protect religious liberty has been floated in Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Kansas and Tennessee. All have been struck down, with opponents arguing successfully that the proposal would not only discriminate against same-sex couples, but would provide legal backing for prejudice based on race, religion, sex, nationality, age, familial status or disability.
Should the Bill pass the House of Representatives, Arizona will stand alone as a solitary success for those campaigning on the grounds of religious liberty. Yet the push back against the repeal of the Defence of Marriage act is just part of a wider trend in the US, with the evangelical wing of the GOP determined to drive state law more into line with Biblical law, most notably in the religious lobbying to restrict access to abortions – even in cases of rape and incest.
In the post 9/11 paranoia, journalist Oriana Fallaci popularised the idea of Europe being consumed by Islamification, a notion given crude lip service in the UK by the English Defence League (EDL) and the rhetoric of "creeping Sharia". Yet in the US the threat of religious literalism is far less fatuous, with the mainstream (albeit fractured) Republican Party openly invoking God's word to justify discrimination against homosexuals.
Yet with a series of court rulings reversing bans on same-sex marriage, even if Arizona’s Bill does become law (it is expected to pass the state House), the faithful will still have a long way to go to push back the onrushing tide of secularism in the US. Jefferson’s "wall of separation" between church and state remains in place… albeit with a few bricks soon chipped off.