Moderating Expectations for Faith Based Business Owners

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In recent weeks Arizona once again found itself in the national spotlight for the state’s law-making decisions.  However, this time, the issue on the table was religious freedom and not immigration.  A bill was presented to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that would have extended state business owners the right to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers if such service violated the business owners’ beliefs. Many supporting an individual for-profit business owner’s rights to act according to the dictates of his faith and conscience in the course of doing business were relying on the Republican Governor to protect these rights. 

However, at the end of the day, proponents of protecting the religious freedom of business owners were sorely disappointed when Governor Brewer vetoed the bill. The Republican Governor made the announcement at a news conference late in the day, where she remarked that she had concerns that the bill was “broadly worded and could result in unintended negative consequences.” She also said that she didn’t see the potential statute as responding to a currently existing or tangible religious liberty problem in the state.  Additionally, she commented that she made this decision based on the facts as she interpreted them, and not based on what public opinion might call for.

Uncharacteristically, many notable conservative business and political figures threw their backing behind opponents of the bill.  Corporate leaders and GOP establishment members such as John McCain, Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney added to the augmenting force behind the bill’s opposition.  Many prominent players in Arizona undoubtedly had concern that such a law would be regarded as yet another unnecessary and discriminatory, even extremist conservative, measure. Others expressed concern that this piece of legislation would have given business owners of faith a blank check to act out of prejudice.

This legislation came out of incidents in other states where small business owners of faith were ostracized for opting not to contribute to same-sex couples’ wedding or commitment ceremonies due to the fact that such a contribution would have violated their religious beliefs.  Common players in the wedding business such as florists, photographers, and cake-makers, have been brought to court and faced steep financial consequences for being unwilling to violate the dictates of their faith.

The Arizona bill attempted to extend exemptions for business owners of faith to ensure the protection of their religious freedoms. During a debate prior to the Governor’s veto, State Senator Steve Yarbrough remarked that: “This bill is about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith.” Supporters continued to point out that business owners wishing to practice their religious conscience were the ones actually willing to take a financial risk for the sake of their sincere beliefs. 

 A crowd gathered in Arizona to encourage Gov. Jan Brewer to veto SB1062.  Photo by Zuma Press.

A crowd gathered in Arizona to encourage Gov. Jan Brewer to veto SB1062. Photo by Zuma Press.

For example, a wedding photographer who opted not to photograph a same-sex wedding would risk losing business not just from the abstention from photographing same-sex weddings, but also from the large and growing percentage of the population that supports the rights of same-sex individuals to marry.

As the tide of public opinion continues to turn toward support of the legalization of same-sex marriage, religious business owners may very well be forced out of business, or be forced to reexamine the faith tenets undergirding their business decisions.  Either way, religious business owners who are unwilling to perform services that contradict their faith will undoubtedly be the ones at a disadvantage in the marketplace and the court of public opinion. 

In her comments, Ms. Brewer made it clear that this bill was not her idea of where the state legislature’s priorities should lie.  The Governor stated that she was disappointed that this was the first bill of 2014 that had come across her desk for approval.  Rather than the religious rights of business owners, Governor Brewer would rather have devoted her attention to Arizona’s economy, budget, or child welfare system.

The Governor’s concerns for her state’s reputation are valid, of course.  Following an unpopular immigration law in 2010, Arizona’s national standing has suffered and the state has endured financial loss due to boycotts and negative media coverage.  Corporations including American Airlines, Intel and Apple threatened to remove business from Arizona if the bill protecting the religious freedoms of business owners became a law.

Prominent political leaders, business figures, and people of faith don’t all agree on this issue.  It is important for people of faith to understand the difficult economic and reputational realities regarding this issue.  Additionally, it is important to look at this religious freedom debate as  one filled with incremental victories, for which proponents of the Arizona bill must be thankful.  Irrelevant of its outcome, this bill has brought the discussion of individual and institutional religious freedom to the forefront of public consciousness- and that is something we need. 

- Chelsea Langston is an attorney who works at a non-profit consumer organization in Washington, DC.