It probably seemed like a no-lose proposition.
State Sen. Al Melvin, an underdog candidate for the GOP nomination for governor, agreed to be interviewed Monday by CNN’s Anderson Cooper about SB 1062, the controversial bill awaiting Gov. Jan Brewer‘s decision on whether to veto or sign it.
You can imagine the political calculation: At best the SaddleBrooke resident would wow the audience and gain some momentum as the only gubernatorial candidate supporting the bill. At worst, he would gain some name identification and maybe a few contributions.
But there was a third option that Melvin and his campaign perhaps did not consider: That he might look so ill-informed and slow-witted that he hurt both the bill and his slim chances for the nomination. It won’t surprise followers of politics in Southern Arizona to learn that this was the outcome.
The debate over SB 1062 has become so hot in recent days that relatively few politicians have given it full-throated support, as Melvin has. The bill would protect business owners from lawsuits if they refuse to do business with somebody due to their own religious beliefs. It’s a response to cases such as the one in New Mexico in which a wedding photographer declined to take pictures of a gay couple’s commitment ceremony and last year was found by the state’s supreme court to have violated New Mexico’s public-accommodations law.
“The issue is whether the First Amendment guarantee to exercise your religious belief will continue to mean something in this country,” Cathi Herrod, president of the conservative Center for Arizona Policy, told me Tuesday.
Unsurprisingly, in our discussion, Herrod disagreed with my assessment that the bill essentially expands the freedom of business owners to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. Melvin had trouble even getting that deep into the debate.
Early on, Cooper said to him: “It is legal already to discriminate against somebody who’s gay in Arizona, that you can fire somebody because they’re gay. There’s no law against that in most cities in Arizona, correct?”
“I’ve been in our Senate for six years, and I don’t know of any provision in our state laws to discriminate against anyone,” Melvin responded.
Of course, the correct answer would have been “yes.” Under Arizona law, employers and businesses may fire, not hire or refuse to serve people because they’re gay. The cities of Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson have ordinances that prohibit this, but SB 1062 would pre-empt those local laws if the business person cites his or her religious beliefs. In fact, if the bill becomes law, voiding those ordinances may be its main practical effect.
Federal law protects people against discrimination based on factors such as sex, race, nationality, religion and disability, but it does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but what we don’t want to see is that it (SB 1062) essentially makes it OK for people to use their religion to harm others,” Alessandra Soler, executive director of the Arizona ACLU, told me Tuesday. “If you’re a business serving the public, you need to do that without discrimination.”
Riffing off the bill’s possible repercussions, Cooper asked whether an Arizona loan officer, for example, could refuse to do business with a divorced woman because he has a sincerely held religious opposition to divorce. The question was, of course, a consideration of the possible unintended consequences of the bill, but Melvin couldn’t fathom that.
“I think you’re being farfetched, with all due respect, sir,” Melvin said. “Who would discriminate against them? I’ve never heard of discriminating against people like that.”
Of course the question is not whether he’s heard of anything like that, but whether that could be a possible consequence. Melvin reverted to expressing his world view in its purest form: “You know, all of the pillars of society are under attack in the United States. The family, the traditional family, traditional marriage, mainline churches, the Boy Scouts, you name it. All of the pillars of society as we know it today are under attack, including religious freedom, and that’s what this bill is designed to do.”
In our conversation, Herrod also expressed this sense of a “growing hostility to religion” in society. It’s that fear, that sense of being under attack — justified or not — that’s really motivating the bill. She pointed to efforts to enforce gay rights and to require employers provide contraception coverage in their insurance as key examples.
“If that’s not hostility to religious belief, and a lack of respect to religion, then I don’t know what is,” she said.
To really grasp societal hostility, Herrod would do well to study the experiences of gay Americans down through the generations. Cooper, who is gay, seemed to be getting at that lack of comprehension when he demanded to know whether Melvin would consider it discrimination if an Arizona employer fires an employee because he or she is not heterosexual.
“I don’t know of anybody that discriminates in our state, sir,” Melvin said.
Incredulously, Cooper insisted: “You’re running for governor of the state of Arizona. You’re going to be governor of gay and lesbian people. And you can’t even go on the record and say if a gay and lesbian person is fired simply for being gay or lesbian, that’s discrimination? You can’t even make that leap and just say, yes, that would be discrimination?”
“I don’t know of any case like you just cited, sir,” Melvin added a minute later. “I’m against all discrimination and I want maximum religious freedom, sir.”
Melvin’s simplemindedness apparently prevents him from seeing that SB 1062 is trying to reset the balance between those two, sometimes conflicting, interests.
He may still charm some SaddleBrooke seniors, but this interview was an outright embarrassment to Southern Arizona and probably harmful to Melvin’s causes. Unfortunately, it was also an accurate depiction of the legislator we’ve come to know.