Skip to main content

Arizona's shameful 'right to discriminate' bill

By Matthew C. Whitaker
updated 5:39 PM EST, Sat February 22, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Whitaker: Arizona legislature approved a bill that would allow discrimination
  • He says the bill shields those who show religion prompts their discrimination
  • He says bill aimed at LGTB community but could affect many groups
  • Whitaker: Arizona complicated, not as biased as often depicted

Editor's note: Matthew C. Whitaker is an ASU Foundation professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Peace Be Still: Modern Black America From World War II to Barack Obama." He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker.

(CNN) -- Arizona set itself up for yet another self-inflicted political wound, international humiliation, costly boycotts and historical shame now that its legislature has passed a bill giving people the right to discriminate.

The bill was written by the Center for Arizona Policy and a Christian legal organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom. They were inspired, in part, by the case of a New Mexico wedding photographer who was taken to court after refusing to shoot a gay commitment ceremony. The bill seeks to shield Christians from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who dare to seek equal protection under the law.

Matthew C. Whitaker
Matthew C. Whitaker

Specifically, the bill protects all individuals, businesses and religious institutions from discrimination lawsuits if they can show that their discriminatory actions were motivated by religious convictions.

Under the guise of religious freedom, however, the bill would enable businesses potentially to discriminate against virtually anyone -- not just Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics and atheists, but also unwed mothers, Rastafarians and Budweiser T-shirt wearers. This bill is arbitrary, capricious and antithetical to the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood that inform our documents of freedom.

It will lead to marginalization and oppression by allowing bigots to deny gay people access to virtually any business or service. The road to Indian genocide, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, the Holocaust and other iterations of human persecution began with laws that isolated and dehumanized entire groups of people.

What's in Ariz.'s 'religious freedom' bill?
Arizona protesters: Stop 'anti-gay' bill
Arizona anti-gay bill sparks outrage

Arizona's race relations and cultural politics are often misunderstood by the rest of the country. Racial diversity and progressivism exist within the predominantly white and conservative power structure of the Grand Canyon State. This has created an interesting dynamic.

Arizona has sometimes made racial and cultural inroads ahead of the national curve, while fear of major demographic shifts, including a growing LGBTQ community, and the erosion of white privilege have unearthed racial stereotyping, homophobia and xenophobic policies. Many outside the state misunderstand this dynamic, assuming we are a wholly backward place without understanding that it is much more complicated than that.

Nevertheless, Arizona now has the dubious designation as the first state to pass an anti-gay bill that seeks to shun and segregate in the name of religion.

Similar legislation has been put forward in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee. The Arizona measure is the only bill that has passed.

There is a saying: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." The rhythm of chauvinism and acrimony in Arizona endures. The state long resisted creating a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., which it finally did in 1992. It is not too late to shift course, however. Gov. Jan Brewer has the power to put Arizona back on the right side of history. The "right to discriminate" bill now sits on her desk.

The bill passed Thursday, She has five days to reject it or sign it into law.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew C. Whitaker.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT