Yesterday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have made clear that the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) applied not just as a defense to a lawsuit brought by a government entity, but also as a defense to lawsuits brought by a private party under a state statute, or using a cause of action created by state law. Under RFRA, no government action (including a damage award in a lawsuit) can “substantially burden” religious freedom unless it is “the least restrictive means” to further a “compelling interest.” The bill hardly seems like a radical change, since damage awards in private lawsuits already constitute “state action” for purposes of the First Amendment, under the Supreme Court’s decisions in Snyder v. Phelps and New York Times v. Sullivan. The bill just applies the same principle to RFRA, and, indeed, the bill’s enactment might merely have given the state’s RFRA the same meaning that other jurisdictions’ RFRA’s already have by judicial construction. The bill did not even mention sexual orientation, did not single out gays, and probably would have had its greatest effect in other areas.
The media, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, have fundamentally distorted what that bill, SB 1062, vetoed by Gov. Brewer, would have done, by claiming that it would have “allowed” a broad range of discrimination. It was written narrowly enough (and did not even mention gays) that it conceivably might not have legalized any additional discrimination against gays at all. It might have had more effect as to refusals to serve other groups disapproved of by religious fundamentalists, like cohabiting unmarried couples, although even that is not guaranteed. (Disclosure: I support both gay marriage and religious liberty, and CEI did not take any position on the bill.)