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Religious Rights: Bills target broad range of perceived attacks on beliefs

Already steeped in the battle over abortion and contraception in health plans, social conservatives have also ramped up their efforts to advance religious expression in the public square, taking advantage of the dominance of policymakers at the state Capitol with similar impulses.

Their immediate goal is to paint a protective coat on religious expression so individuals don’t fear being penalized for asserting their beliefs in public.

One proposal prohibits the government from suspending or revoking a person’s professional license for declining to provide a service over a religious objection.

Another bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed, seeks to ensure that colleges and universities don’t discriminate against teachers because of their religious or political views.

Socially conservative lawmakers are also advancing legislation to ensure that money given to the Arizona Commission on the Arts won’t go to works that desecrate or dishonor religious objects or the state and U.S. flags.

Another bill the governor recently signed would allow public high schools to offer a course on the Bible and its role in Western culture.

While some of these measures may seem redundant — federal laws already prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin — or difficult to enforce, they reaffirm the Legislature’s readiness to defend religion against what some perceive as an increasingly secular world.

They reflect the struggle to define the role of religion in the nation’s political life because the country was founded, unlike many nations at the time, without an official church. These measures are a microcosm of the American conflict that arises when a society strives to guarantee religious freedom while striving to keep church and state separate.

One bill stemmed from a controversy in 2010, when a member of the Commission on Appellate Court Appointments expressed reservations about an applicant for the Independent Redistricting Commission because his application included a reference to his affiliation with a Christian organization that seeks to increase the number of churches in Arizona. The commissioner cited “separation of church and state” while discussing the application.

That was enough to spark social conservatives into action. They pointed to the incident as an example of the marginalization of the Christian faith in the public arena.

Their allies in the Legislature last year passed a bill to prohibit the government from denying a person a public position because of his religious beliefs. The Republican super-majorities in both chambers also rewrote the statutes to say a person’s exercise of religion is not considered unprofessional conduct and government may not pull someone’s professional license because of the practice of their faith.

But the governor vetoed the measure, arguing it was too broad and could protect actions that harm the public but cannot be readily addressed if a person claimed it is based on their religious beliefs.

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Social conservatives are trying again this year.

Just like last year’s proposal, the legislation goes beyond ensuring that no religious test is required of candidates for a public office.

The bill also prohibits the government from revoking a professional license if the holder refused to offer a service that violates his or her faith.

Under the legislation, a pharmacist could refuse a prescription for abortion medication or a lawyer could deny counsel to a gay couple because of a religious objection and not have to worry about the Pharmacy Board or the State Bar taking action.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, admits the difficulties his bill could create for some people who are denied services.

But he said the minimal hardship his bill could cause is far outweighed by greatly advancing people’s rights to freely exercise their religion.

“In the whole scheme of things, recognizing that you have also this preeminent right to the free exercise of your religion has to override in those circumstances,” he said.

But Anjali Abraham of the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that the legislation’s potential repercussions are much broader and could lead to actual harm.

She said a school teacher or counselor from a religious majority could claim protections under the law if they refused to help students who face bullying because they belong to a religious minority.

“Because the bill is written so broadly and it casts such a wide net, there’s just way too much danger of a threat to public safety,” Anjali said.

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Of the bills that are advancing, none starkly illustrates the Legislature’s readiness to raise the armor in the name of religion than the proposal to prohibit funds by the Commission on the Arts from being used to desecrate religious objects.

In pushing for the idea, social conservatives also employed an unusual

tactic: Rather than let the proposal stand on its own, they inserted it into a bill that reauthorizes the Arts Commission.

The legislation doesn’t prohibit an artist from drawing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed — a sacrilege to Muslims that already sparked violence in other countries — but that type of artwork can’t be funded by the commission.

Robert Booker, the commission’s executive director, said he is comfortable with the policy since it reaffirms Arizona’s commonly held values.

He noted that the prohibition against desecration of religious objects already exists in Arizona law, which says that money from the now- defunded arts endowment fund may not go to an artist or entity that uses it to dishonor a religious object.

This year’s bill expands this requirement to all of the commission’s money. The commission hands out about $1.4 million in grant money annually to various artists.

But while the government has some leeway in attaching strings to its funds, the legislation also forces introspection over the role of art in society, which is sometimes meant to offend sensibilities in order to draw attention to a perceived injustice.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. J.D. Mesnard, is fully aware of these nuances.

But the Chandler Republican argued that, when public money is involved, an artist’s freedom has to be balanced with the rights of other people, and certain restraints are appropriate.

Mesnard said he’s making a preference for religious objects to guarantee that taxpayers aren’t paying for something that potentially could tear society apart.

“There are certain things associated with this country, and certain things associated with religion in general, that we thought these are the types of issues that really get people worked up,” he said.

If such art must exist, Mesnard said, it would be better for an artist to do it on his own dime.

For Booker, there’s enough room for artwork that challenges society about what’s important even with the bill’s religiously based restrictions.

“We look toward artists to create work that challenges us to make us think,” he said as he listed some of the provocative and emotionally moving works that have confronted the horrors in human history.

“I think that will still continue. I sure hope it still continues, given the limitations of this language,” he added.

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Democrats are quick to denounce the Center for Arizona Policy, the evangelical Christian lobby that is behind many of the religiously themed bills, saying the group is forcing its beliefs on everybody.

For Sen. Linda Lopez, a Democrat from Tucson, the bill on arts and religion puts Arizona on the same footing as theocratic governments that have put a price on the heads of artists and writers who offended their religion.

“It is wrong for people to use their elected positions to impose their religious beliefs on the rest of us,” Lopez said.

But social conservatives say religion is under a sustained attack from people and groups who wish to keep religion out of the public arena.

“There are very serious concerns about how religious (views) — and it doesn’t necessarily have to be Christian views, but other religious views, as well — are being marginalized or being considered to be something to be ostracized,” said Deborah Sheasby, an attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy.

“What we’re working on is to make sure that the government and our laws set up a situation where religious liberty is protected and affirmed, and something that is allowed to be out there in the marketplace of ideas,” she said, adding their proposals seek to “restrain” government from interfering with the exercise of religion.

John Carlson, who teaches religious studies at Arizona State University, said the tension between religion and secularization in public policy is, generally speaking, a good thing.

He said they affirm the maturity of America’s political system, which tries to accommodate competing interests, including guarantees to freedom of worship.

“They’re certainly better (debates) than whether or not you’re going to grant citizenship rights to certain people because of their faith,” he said.

Professor Linell Cady, director of ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, said what exists is a “constant negotiation” over the diversity of religions and secular perspectives.

“There will never be a perfect and final solution to the negotiation of multiple religions and public life and law — unless religions are completely ruled inappropriate in public life, a position which privileges an anti-religious version of secularism,” she said.

“At the moment, we have conservative religious voices invoking religious freedom as a political strategy to enact changes in law and policies, and seeming to make some headway with this rhetorical strategy. Of course, the question is always whose religious freedom is being championed, and whose freedom is being constrained in the process? Exposing the politics of religious freedom is very important so it isn’t taken on face value as the moral trump card,” Cady added.

• SB1365, which awaits the Senate’s final approval, would prohibit the government from denying, revoking or suspending a person’s professional license for refusing to provide a service because it violates sincerely held religious beliefs. Governments also are prohibited from denying someone an appointment to a public office over his or her exercise of religion.

THE BILLS:

• HB2774, whose final language is waiting to be hammered out, expands tax-exempt status to properties that are used by a religious association or institution so long as they’re not held for profit.

Currently, the tax exemption applies to properties that are “held primarily for religious worship.”

• HB2770, which was signed by the governor, says universities and community colleges many not make employment decisions based on a faculty member’s political or religious beliefs. They also can’t exclude a teacher from tenure or search or hiring committees also because of his or her political or religious beliefs.

• HB2665, which has been narrowed down and awaits a final vote in the Senate, allows religiously motivated businesses to deny contraception coverage to workers.

• HB2265, which the governor signed, extends the Commission on the Arts for 10 years and prohibits its funds from going to a person or group that desecrates or dishonors the U.S. and Arizona flags, and religious objects.

• HB2563, which was signed into law, authorizes school districts and charter schools to offer an elective course for high school students about how the Bible has influenced Western culture.

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