The XX Factor

Arizona Bill Could Make It Legal for Businesses to Discriminate Against Unmarried Women

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill expanding religious people’s right to discriminate, but will she stop it again?

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Are the many lawsuits from employers who want to remove contraception coverage from their employees’ health insurance plans just a matter of reacting to the new levels of control that the government has over health care regulation? Or are the lawsuits part of a larger religious-right campaign to redefine “religious liberty” as the right for people to impose their religion on others through economic means? I’ve long thought it was the latter, and now it seems that the Arizona legislature is out to prove my theory right.

Arizona state Sen. Steve Yarbrough has introduced a bill that would allow businesses that are sued for discrimination to claim an exemption from anti-discrimination law based on their religious beliefs. Or, put more simply, if a business owner decides not to serve you, he or she can say it’s because your presence offends Jesus and can, if this bill becomes law, get away with that. In fact, the bill may even give employers the right to deny you a job because they think God doesn’t approve of you.

The legislation was inspired by a case in New Mexico where a gay couple sued a photographer who refused to photograph their wedding on religious grounds. As with the objections to the birth-control mandate, the combination of newness and the sense that the sexist/homophobic person is being asked to actively participate in behavior they disagree with makes it seem like the people demanding the right to religious discrimination have an argument. However, the result of creating a generic right to discriminate based on religious beliefs has the potential to be incredibly disruptive. Howard Fischer, interviewing Yarbrough for the Sierra Vista Herald, asked Yarbrough how far-reaching this legislation could get:

But Yarbrough said his legislation could also be interpreted broader than that, allowing motel operators with vacant rooms to refuse to rent to gays.

Potentially more significant, Yarbrough acknowledged there may be individuals [who] have religious beliefs about unmarried women, or even employing people who do not share their same beliefs.

While it would be nice if this was just one of those go-nowhere bills written by one of the many cranks that have snuck into state legislatures, the ugly fact of the matter is a similar bill made it all the way to Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk last year. She vetoed it, because Brewer is quietly serving as a check on some of the excesses of the right in the age of Obama. But the fact that it got that far means that similar legislation could land on the desks of other governors who are less interested in keeping a lid on religious right madness. 

Today it’s not getting your full insurance benefits. Tomorrow it’s being told that you and your boyfriend have to pay for separate rooms because the hotel owner disapproves of your private sexual choices. Or that your boss needs to fire you now that you’ve gotten married, because his religion teaches that a married woman’s place is in the home serving her husband.