Yesterday night, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed two controversial bills, HB 2625 and SB 1365, into law. If you’ve been keeping up with the controversial things coming out of the Grand Canyon State in the last year, you probably felt the same chill I did. It was, well, merited.
HB 2625 expands the number of businesses who can deny access to contraception for their female employees. Arizona is already among one of 20 states which allow some religious companies to get an exemption in covering contraception. This law would widen the number of employers that qualify to any corporation that has articles of incorporation which explicitly state a religiously-motivated purpose, and whose religious beliefs are determined to ‘play a fundamental role in its function’.
Think that sounds a little bit less than separation of church and state? Take a look (PDF) at SB 1365:
Government shall not deny, revoke or suspend a person’s professional or occupational license, certificate or registration for any of the following and the following are not unprofessional conduct: declining to provide or participate in providing any service that violates the person’s sincerely held religious beliefs except performing the duties of a peace officer.
This section does not authorize any person to engage in conduct that violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act.
This means your doctor or psychiatrist can refuse to provide you care if they feel that doing so would violate their religious beliefs. That is unacceptable. When you take employment, when you interview for a job, you are agreeing to do that job. If you feel that dispensing or prescribing Plan B or birth control is immoral, do not get a job at a pharmacy. It’s as easy as that.
You can take a look the video of the House proceedings (click on the third segment in the index) prior to passage–but only if you’re prepared to be upset. The proposed Heinz Amendment to require professionals who decline to supply a reference to another provider failed. This is legislated protection for religious discrimination. Now it is law.
Last night, just after Governor Brewer signed the bills, I spoke with Seráh Blain, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for Arizona, who has been lobbying hard against passage of SB 1365 and HB 2625, and she generously took some time to tell us how things are on the ground.
Tell me, in your own words, what makes these two bills so bad for the secular community and for the population of Arizona.
SB1365 is particularly harmful because it elevates the right to religious conviction over other kinds of convictions — and over basic human rights. This enables people to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against some of the most politically vulnerable people in our society.
HB 2625 is similar. It takes away an individual employee’s liberty to make decisions about what constitutes adequate, ethical reproductive healthcare for herself and her family — and it hands that right to her employer who can now make that decision for her based on the employer’s religious beliefs. It’s an assault on individual liberty and further jeopardizes the ability of women to make decisions about when and how she chooses to start or grow her family. This is particularly serious for poor women who are completely reliant upon employer-provided insurance and cannot afford to get contraception coverage elsewhere.
What has been the process of fighting these?
We’re very fortunate in Arizona to have enough support in the secular community to fund a nontheistic advocacy organization with a full-time Director and lobbyist — me! I have been at the State Capitol all legislative season talking to legislators about the importance of secularism, testifying in committee hearings, and working to stop anti-secular policy. We also send out Action Alerts to our constituents who have sent hundreds of emails and made hundreds of phone calls to our governor. We’ve collaborated with other organizations, including Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Unite Women, and people from progressive faith communities. And we’ve been building and growing local nontheistic communities throughout the state so that, moving forward, we can work with an organized, engaged constituency.
You said that of the 22 anti-secular bills you’ve lobbied against this legislative season, you believe this one is the most damaging. What have been features of other legislation you fought in the past year?
Most of the bills we’ve seen have been couched in terms of religious liberty — but they’re actually religious privilege bills. We’re seeing legislation that privileges the sectarian religious beliefs of the people in power and that elevates the right to religious expression over other kinds of rights. LGBT people, religious minorities, women, and nonbelievers are particularly vulnerable in our state.
There have been several reproductive health bills related to abortion, contraception, in vitro, gamete donation, etc., that represent a bias against particular medical procedures based on religious assumptions about human development and the value of genetic material rather than evidence. There have been bills that defund public, secular education and either divert tax dollars to private religious schools or directly fund religious schools and homeschool curricula.
We saw bills die in the legislature that religionists felt were an assault on their religious values—including a bill that would have protected teens from bullying and legislation that would have required comprehensive, fact-based sex education programs.
What, if anything, can citizens of Arizona do to prevent being denied medical care as a result of these laws?
This is going to be challenging, especially in rural religious communities. The state passed a bill this year that excludes Planned Parenthood and other clinics that provide abortion from being reimbursed by Medicaid for even the non-abortion-related services they provide — so women without contraception coverage through their employers are losing options for access. I’m also concerned that LGBT people in rural areas are going to find it difficult to get any kind of service from state-licensed professionals, including legal services, counseling service, even real estate services.
I’m not sure there are good solutions to this problem — which is part of the reason these bills are so awful.
Have you found a majority of opposition to these laws stems from the secular community?
There has been a lot of momentum in the secular community, but there has actually also been a lot of opposition to these laws from progressive people of faith — particularly on the “War Against Women” bills. I’m finding that these folks really see Secular Coalition for Arizona as an ally because we’re actually at the State Capitol doing the work necessary to effect change. A lot of anti-atheist prejudice has dissipated as the broader community sees us more and more as social justice activists.
I am going to continue to collaborate with progressive people of faith, speak to faith organizations about how secularism protects real religious liberty, and will be working hard to advance social justice and human well being. As religious people have begun to see that many of our core values overlap, they have shown an eagerness to work together.
What comes next in fighting this legislation?
We have an election coming up — and the best way to fight this legislation is to get legislators in office who will write these policies out of statute. We’re getting to work on voter registration; we sending out candidate questionnaires and voter guides related to secularism; I’ll be doing Town Halls around the state to talk to voters about secularism; and we’ll be working to mobilize the members of the thirteen organizations we represent throughout the state and grow some new communities as well. The solution is grassroots secularism, and we’ve got a ton of momentum behind that.
How can non-Arizonans help?
Send us some money! Seriously though, go to our website and sign up for Action Alerts. You can help us let our state government know that the nation is watching. And much of the anti-secular legislation that passes in Arizona is boiler-plate from national organizations promoting a Religious Right agenda, so staying up-to-date on our bills can help folks in other states prepare for what’s coming. I would also love to hear from activists in other states working on these issues so we can advise one another, share research, etc.
The thing I like to emphasize is that secularism is a social justice movement. Religion is too easily used in government as a tool to oppress politically vulnerable individuals; we’ve seen it again and again throughout history. The best way to protect human rights and advance human well being is to keep religion out of government.
You can reach Serah at serah[at]secularAZ[dot]org.