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Faith-based groups make big gains with Brewer at helm

When Jan Brewer replaced Janet Napolitano as governor last year, socially conservative public policy groups such as the Center for Arizona Policy and the Arizona Catholic Conference began a streak of successes at the Capitol that would make any lobbyist envious.

Ron Johnson, who lobbies for the Arizona Catholic Conference, called last year’s legislative session the “most pro-life session ever.”

“(She) signed virtually everything that we were able to get on her desk,” he said.

Indeed, Johnson’s group and the Center for Arizona Policy, an Evangelical Christian organization that lobbies at the Capitol, accomplished 10 of their 13 legislative goals last year. Their biggest wins were three new laws that restrict abortion, one that protects the rights of students to express religion at public schools, and another that requires the delivery of nutrients to medical patients who are unresponsive unless they have documented other wishes.

That, however, was just the beginning. Faith-based groups are backing a new set of bills this year that that would make state laws adhere more closely to what they call “family values.”

So far this session, the Legislature has given initial approval to bills that would require doctors to collect personal data from women on whom they perform an abortion, extend the waiting period for a divorce or legal separation, give preference to married couples in adoptions, prohibit the use of taxpayer money for abortion insurance, and penalize any non-therapeutic research that results in the destruction of human embryos.

“All they are really doing is securing traditional family values,” said Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican. “These are the traditional values that were upheld for 6,000 years and when homosexual activists essentially decided they were going to use the courts to try to normalize their relationships in statute, then social conservatives began putting traditional family values in statute also.”

The trend is disturbing to some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, who fear the state has gone too far by creating laws that impose a specific set of religious values on all residents. They argue that the laws passed last year and the bills now under consideration don’t allow Arizona residents to make personal choices without government interference.

Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Democrat from Phoenix, said social conservatives are trying to reshape government as a limited theocracy, in which religious ideology is the basis for laws.

“They have very rigid views on what the social norms should be,” he said. “I think it’s against what the majority of Arizona thinks because we are more of a libertarian state that doesn’t believe government should dictate what goes on in a bedroom or, you know, how we should interact with our doctors. But these individuals, on the other hand, say they are for less government. But in reality they are for creating a government that dictates their beliefs.”

The way Democrats see it, the three abortion laws that passed last year are the most compelling evidence that Republican lawmakers have chosen religious ideology over the rights of individuals. To the Center for Arizona Policy, however, the abortion restrictions represent healthy public policy regardless of religious doctrine.

“I think when you look at an ultrasound picture of a preborn child, we can agree that that is a human life that is worthy of the protection of our laws,” said Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy.

One of last year’s abortion laws banned partial-birth abortions. Two others are tied up in court and have not taken effect.

One abortion law that’s in legal limbo would add layers of paperwork to the abortion-consultation process and would require patients to visit with their doctors in person before going through with the procedure. It also would allow medical workers to opt out of any abortion-related procedure.

The other abortion law that got hung up in the courts would require physicians to perform all abortion procedures. Those who opposed the change said it will drive up costs because nurses are capable of performing abortions, and at reduced costs.

Both laws were suspended temporarily by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge who said it appears they would establish burdensome requirements for women, especially those with limited incomes and those who live in rural areas. The judge has not yet set a date for oral arguments in the trial to decide the case on its merits.

Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Tucson, said the new abortion laws, as well as others that limit women’s reproductive rights and discriminate against gay people, prove that the Legislature has become more socially conservative than Arizona residents as a whole. The laws backed by faith-based groups, she said, have put the state on a path most residents don’t want to follow.

“Some of the things that have been pushed through here really take us back to a time when the majority of people believe that women couldn’t make those kinds of decisions themselves,” Lopez said.
But other elected officials, including Brewer, believe a higher power is guiding their political decisions. And they see nothing wrong with the intermingling of religion and politics.

Last September, Brewer told a gathering of Lutherans that “God has placed me in this powerful position as Arizona’s governor” to help guide the state during the financial crisis. She also said God’s truth can be converted into a set of political issues, that there is a “God’s way in politics.”

That’s the kind of talk that lobbyists for faith-based groups like to hear. And so far, Brewer’s stint as governor has cleared the way for the Center for Arizona Policy and the Arizona Catholic Conference to “There is a strong pro-life, pro-family majority in both the House and Senate and in the governor, so certainly we have opportunities right now to advocate for family-friendly legislation in ways that we haven’t in the past,” Herrod said.

The Legislature has been controlled by Republicans for several decades, but the agenda of social conservatives has at times lacked the support needed to make significant changes to law. Even when lawmakers passed bills that were supported and in some cases written by faith-based groups, the governor has been an obstacle.

Napolitano’s resignation ended a six-year blockade in which many bills supported by social conservatives were rejected, either by veto or the threat of veto. Brewer’s stint as Napolitano’s replacement gave the Legislature a two-year window to pass laws that had laid dormant on the wish lists of social conservatives.

Herrod, who has led the Center for Arizona Policy since 2005, said Napolitano wouldn’t even meet with her.

During Napolitano’s six years as governor, she vetoed 20 bills backed by the Center for Arizona Policy. And countless others never reached Napolitano’s desk because lawmakers knew she would veto them and decided not to bother.

“She vetoed almost everything,” said Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa. “It was very difficult working with Governor Napolitano.”

Democrats were upset about Napolitano’s resignation for the same reason that Republicans were glad to see her go.

“She was a backstop for vetoing a lot this crazy, dangerous legislation,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rebecca Rios The Center for Arizona Policy ended its dry spell in 2008, just before Napolitano resigned to take a job in the Obama administration. In November of that year, voters approved a constitutional amendment backed by the Center and the Arizona Catholic Conference that specified the state will recognize marriage only when between one man and one woman.

The measure, which effectually bans gay marriage, almost didn’t make it to the ballot. Lawmakers had let the ballot referral languish in the Senate, but fierce lobbying by Herrod convinced Tim Bee, who at the time was president of the Senate, to bring the measure to the floor for a vote in the final minutes of the 2008 legislative session.

Bee voted to pass the measure, but he made it very clear that he was unhappy with the methods used by lobbyists such as Herrod to force the issue to the floor.

“This issue has permeated this session and has been very divisive,” he said. “I have been extremely disappointed by those groups lobbying on behalf of this issue. They have confronted members in hostile ways, and have threatened and coerced them, in my opinion.”

Yet banning gay marriage was a huge victory for faith-based groups.

Both Herrod and Johnson of the Arizona Catholic Conference say the marriage amendment was their most significant accomplishment, and their organizations played significant roles in mobilizing support for it once it got on the ballot.

Herrod led the coalition that backed the “yes” campaign on Proposition 102. The Center for Arizona Policy also helped raise money for the campaign, which amassed a war chest of more than $7 million.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Catholic Conference zeroed in on Catholics, who were considered swing votes on the amendment. Bishops emphatically endorsed it in videos, in pamphlets and during mass.

In a video posted on the Catholic Conference’s Web site, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted urged Catholics to vote “yes” on the proposition. He said defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman is among issues that are “non-negotiable” and where the faithful “cannot legitimately disagree.” It was played at masses.

Olmsted also sent more than 100,000 copies of his booklet “Catholics in the Public Square” to parishes, which emphasized the importance of marriage.

Johnson, the lobbyist, said there’s an important distinction between compelling religious people to act on their beliefs in the political realm and forcing people to follow religious rituals.

“We would not be trying to compel to go to mass, or in Lent not to eat meat on Fridays. That’s not at all what we are trying to do – imposing our faith on others,” he said.

Others don’t draw the same distinction. Rios said she can agree with some of the goals faith-based groups are trying to achieve, but she said some of the policy changes they are seeking discriminate against people who don’t hold similar values.

“With all due respect, I can appreciate the vision of what they want,” she said. “But they need to be open to the facts and the realities that the avenues (they use) are going to have detrimental effects on the very families they purport to want to be healthy.”

Electing a Democratic governor might make it more difficult for the Center for Arizona Policy and the Arizona Catholic Conference to advance their policy goals. But it will take a new philosophy in the Legislature to reverse the effects of the laws already on the books, said Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which states that it promotes social, economic, racial and environmental justice.

“You’re going to have to see changes in the Legislature, or you’re to have to get these legislators to wake up and recognize that they’re out of sync and out of step,” Brown said.

Click here to read sidebar: “Center for Arizona Policy’s 2010 goals advance in Legislature”

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