Conservative activists said Thursday they will continue to press for additional legal protections for private businesses that deny service to gay men and lesbians, saying a defeat in Arizona this week is only a minor setback and that religious-liberty legislation is the best way to stave off a rapid shift in favor of gay rights.
Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed legislation Wednesday that would have provided a wide variety of religious exemptions to Arizona businesses, after major business groups, prominent GOP figures and gay rights advocates argued it would amount to discrimination.
But many conservatives said they will continue working to convince voters and judges that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion are motivated by faith rather than bigotry.
“The fight has to be over what the First Amendment is,” said John Eastman, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, adding that his side needs to convince the public that conservatives are not trying to deny the rights of other Americans.
“This is not somebody adhering to old Jim Crow lunch-counter discrimination. This is a fundamental dispute about what marriage means and why it’s important for society.”
Religious-freedom measures that could have implications for gay rights are pending in Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case next month in which two businesses argue they should be allowed to refuse to give their employees contraception coverage mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
“There is a sense of alarm within the pro-family movement and among conservative Christians that there (are) growing threats to religious liberty, and many of those threats do relate to the agenda of the sexual revolutionaries,” said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.
The Arizona measure would have amended the state’s version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which passed with broad bipartisan support in 1993 and says the government may not pass a law that “substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion.”
At least 31 states have similar religious protections through statutes or their constitutions, and several conservatives question why they are now sparking controversy.
“Five years ago, this would have been seen as innocuous,” said Brian Walsh, executive director of the American Religious Freedom program at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, whose group has established “religious freedom caucuses” in 18 states.
He acknowledged, however, that several of the most recent legislative proposals are focused specifically on same-sex marriage.
“For many people, marriages and weddings are sacred to them, and they want to make their own decisions about how to participate in them,” said Walsh, whose group has advised lawmakers on bills in Kansas and other states.
Eastman said traditional-values groups must press ahead with legislation so one of these measures can reach the Supreme Court, which he considers sympathetic.
He said Brewer got “so cowed” by the criticism from entities, including the National Football League and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that she didn’t give the courts a chance to “draw that line” between religious freedom and discrimination.