Much More at Stake

Forty years ago this July I drove my parents’ over-stuffed Buick from Omaha to Phoenix.  They were retiring from cold-country to the Valley of the Sun.  Thus began a family trek in which three siblings followed and raised families in the PHX metro and a fourth migrated there in her retirement.  We are now a solidly ensconced AZ family with our fourth generation multiplying rapidly.  I have cherished having this “escape” from winter’s fury virtually my entire adult life.

Over the years I have noted the many stark contracts between Arizona and my home in Minnesota.  The remnant of our MSP family is scattered and has nothing to compete with the PHX tradition of “Sunday dinner” to which the extended clan generally all shows up.  There are Minnesota winters and Arizona summers.  The contrast between our state politics could not be more dramatic. The list of differences goes on!

AZ ignited a public relations nightmare by passing harsh anti-immigrant legislation in 2010.  A year later they again burst onto the national scene by passing legislation saying that Barak Obama and other presidential candidates had to show proof of citizenship for the their names to be on the ballot (Really! …where was that coming from?).  They seem to have done it again by handing their Governor SB1062, a bill that would allow a business owner to deny his or her public service based on the business owner’s sincerely held religious beliefs.  Similar bills in Kansas, South Dakota, Tennessee and Maine have all failed over the past week.

The issue is vastly more complex than SB1062 and consequences cut far deeper than whether Governor Brewer should veto the legislation. I grieve that so much of the public discourse on this – Arizona seems to have a unusual propensity to enact attention grabbing legislation – is grounded in calculations about the financial impact on the AZ economy!  Are there no higher social values or moral principles to guide our civic life?

Here are only three observations – expressing my convictions – to contribute to a more substantive public discourse:

The AZ legislation, as in the other four states, was in direct response to a court case in New Mexico where professional photographers were found to have unjustly discriminated against a gay couple because they refused to provide their professional services for the couple’s wedding.  Here we have a volatile convergence of business, religious and “gay” interests.

We need to name the issue for what it is!  The impact of law extends far beyond specific statues and immediate issues.  As with all law, SB 1062 creates a climate and fosters a culture in our neighborhoods and communities. SB1062 sanctions a social environment in which acts of violence and intolerance are more likely to occur. This is not the moral climate in which I want my grand nieces and nephews to grow-up!

We must also consider the bigger implications for our Constitutional separation of church and state. SB1062 establishes a scary precedent.  Does a Christian taxi driver have a right to refuse a ride to a Muslim because the driver believes Islam is a violent religion and a threat to our country?  That’s not the America in which I want to live.  Should a pharmacist have the right to refuse making “Plan B” available to a woman in a remote AZ community based on the pharmacist’s personal religious convictions?  I think not!  Do the Little Sisters of the Poor in Denver or does the University of Notre Dame have a legal obligation to provide contraceptive coverage among it’s employee  health care benefits?  As long as public policy in this country links health care coverage – something Catholic social teaching says is a universal human right – to an employer-based system, I believe they do.

Finally, issues raised by SB1062 go back to the founding of our republic and must withstand the scrutiny of principles our Founders recognized as precious, dynamic and ever in need of protection.  In other words, we might easily screw up our patrimony!  In creating “limited government,” balancing a “separation of powers” and carefully crafting a “separation of church and state,” the Founders sought to respect the dignity of each person and the individual rights of all citizens.  This is at the crux of the SB 1062 debate – much is at stake; much is in danger!

Our forebears wrestled with the implications of the government they had crafted in The Federalist Papers.  There the principle of majority rule is presumed and enshrined. It is also tempered.  Their enduring concern and wise counsel is incisively stated by James Madison, one of four authors of The Federalist Papers, “In Republics, the great danger is, that the majority may not sufficiently respect the rights of the minority.”  Thomas Jefferson expresses a similar preoccupation, “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

So what about Arizona and SB 1062?  Who is the “majority” with the authority to pass legislation?  Who is the “minority” whose rights must be protected?  Think clearly and carefully – it may be more complicated than we initially think and vastly more consequential than some calculus of economic impact.  Can we step back from defending our individual self-interest for a moment?  Can we tone down the rhetoric long enough to listen and perhaps, just perhaps, choose to defend what we hold in common?  This is of vital and more enduring importance.

Will we honor our Founders by showing careful attention to the rights and welfare of the various “minorities” among us?  Will we see our world from the perspective of the Judeo-Christian God who consistently takes the side of the anawim, the remnant, those on the outside or underside, the oppressed or any who suffer?  What truly are our most noble religious convictions that need free and open expression?

SB1062 is bad legislation and I will be profoundly disappointed if Governor Brewer does not veto it.  Her veto would be an important step to making AZ an attractive alternative to cold-country.

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