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Era of good times for socially conservative lawmakers

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJCook Photography)

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJCook Photography)

While the 2008 election produced a clear shift in the balance of power in the Arizona Legislature, the biggest boon for social conservatives happened three months later.

Gov. Jan Brewer succeeded Janet Napolitano, who became Obama’s secretary of Homeland Security. Brewer’s ascension to the Ninth Floor gave her party control of the two branches of government, ushering in an era of good times for social conservatism.

The cherry on the cake is that Brewer, a Lutheran, hasn’t been shy in proclaiming her Christian faith.

Under Brewer’s term, evangelical Christians, Catholics and socially conservative lawmakers whom Napolitano perennially rebuffed enjoyed their best years yet.

There was a rare alignment of interests and players. In fact, many of the bills that Brewer signed in the 2010 session had reached the governor’s desk before in one version or another, but Napolitano rejected them.

“They got their Christmas wish early,” said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, a critic of the socially conservative measures.

But many are mindful that Brewer’s reign could be short-lived.

Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu Republican who was instrumental in referring a marriage amendment to the ballot in 2008, said, “The voters are fickle, and we never know what’s going to happen at the next election so we have to assume that our opposition party will take control at the next election.”

Gould’s point is they have to get things through now, just as Obama is pushing as much as he can while Democrats control both Congress and the White House.

The public mood could also swing in the opposite direction, making it much more difficult to advance similar legislation.

Efforts by conservative groups in Arizona and elsewhere to codify traditional values and the push back by others are part of an ongoing dialogue about the role of religion in politics, a conflict that has swung like a pendulum through the decades.

The politics of it is much more cyclical — maybe even spiral — in nature, according to Prof. Corwin Smidt, a political science professor at Calvin College in Michigan, who co-wrote “Pews, Prayers, and Participation: Religion and Civic Responsibility in America.”

“You can think about the Victorian period in American life in the late 1800s. You can say there was a reaction against that in the 1950s and 1960s by, you know, college-educated people,” Smidt said.

In the same light, recent efforts by the Religious Right can be seen as reaction to the movements in 1950s and 1960s, and that, in turn, will produce counter-changes, he said.

Prof. James Guth of Furman University in South Carolina said much of the Religious Right’s reaction, particularly in the areas of abortion and same-sex marriage, was brought about by explicit court actions toward a liberalizing direction.

Many didn’t think those were legitimate decisions in the sense that they weren’t made by legislative bodies elected by the people, said Guth, who has written extensively about the role of religion in American and European politics.

Of the 14 measures that the Center for Arizona Policy, an evangelical Christian advocacy group, lobbied for this year, 11 were eventually signed into law.

Arizona became the first state to opt out of providing insurance coverage in any insurance exchange offered under the federal health care law. The same measure also prohibits the use of taxpayer money for abortion insurance, with some exemptions, such as when the procedure is necessary to save a woman’s life.

On another front, the governor signed legislation to allow churches anywhere that non-religious groups are permitted to operate. The measure prohibits a government entity from implementing any zoning regulation that would impose an “unreasonable burden” on a person’s exercise of religion.
There were, however, some setbacks.

A proposal to extend the waiting period for divorce, even after it was modified so it only applied to certain cases, ultimately failed in the Legislature.

So did a measure that would have given married couples preference in adoption cases, with specific exemptions, such as when it’s in the best interest of the child to be placed with a single parent.

Overall, it was another solid year, according to Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, a group that often partners with the Center for Arizona Policy in lobbying for measures.

“In many ways it was outstanding for us in terms of being the first state in the country to opt out of President Obama’s federal health care plan with regards to abortion coverage,” Johnson said.

Another explanation for social conservatisms’ advance is the inroads made by more conservative Republicans into the Legislature in 2008, making it much easier to pass measures in the shape and form they preferred.

Political consultant Chris Baker said some moderate Republicans have either been defeated or decided to retire and were replaced by social conservatives.

“You had more conservative legislators and a conservative governor,” said Sen. Linda Gray, a Republican from Glendale who authored of many of the conservative measures.

Add to that the perception that Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, has increasingly become more influential. In remarks on the Senate floor, Sen. Ken Cheuvront once called her a “puppeteer.”

“We work hard,” Herrod said. “We have a standard of excellence that we aim for, and we work closely with legislators.”

But Democrats, such as Assistant House Minority Leader Kyrsten Sinema, are expectedly wary of Herrod’s sway.

“The governor is in the pocket of Cathi Herrod and I think that legislators either support her or are scared of her,” Sinema said.

It’s clear that the Religious Right appears to be in the upswing in Arizona and plans to take advantage of this favorable climate before the pendulum swings again.

Indeed, scholars have noticed that the nation’s attitude toward abortion has become more conservative.

Professor Ted G. Jelen of the University of Nevada Las Vegas said pro-life groups have become a lot smarter and have framed the issue to their advantage by focusing on the more horrific aspects of abortion, such as partial-birth or late-term abortion.

But Jelen said the public’s view on gay rights, including same-sex marriage, is becoming much more liberal, although not fast enough to stem the movement to ban same-sex marriage in state constitutions.

“I think more and more Americans, especially younger ones, are starting to think, ‘Who cares? It’s not my problem. It’s not my business,’” Jelen said.

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