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Arizona's Anti-Gay Bill Follows a Trend of Intolerance Set By Anti-Immigration Bill

First Posted: Mar 06, 2014 05:20 PM EST

Arizona has been the source of a great national controversy in the past few weeks. The state has come under fire by human rights groups and the LGBT community for its passing of House Bill 2153 / Senate Bill 1062, a law that supposedly proposes to advocate religious freedom, but in actuality seems a thinly veiled attempt at curtailing the rights of gay Arizonians.

The bill in question, if implemented, would have allowed for store and business owners to deny service to gay or lesbian customers on the basis on their religious beliefs. Drafted by the conservative Christian organization Alliance Defending Freedom, as well as the Center of Arizona Policy, the bill's alleged purpose was to protect religious businesses from being taken to court for discrimination lawsuits. At least that's what many proponents of the bill argued.

Despite the arguments in favor of the bill, the national backlash to the proposed law was swift and strong. Labeled by many as a "discrimination bill", opponents believed the new law would do the exact opposite of its supposed intentions. Rather than protecting the rights of religious individuals, it would give an excuse to practice hate towards an already highly marginalized group. The bill's lack of specificity with regard to sexual orientation as the sole reason for discrimination was also a cause for concern rather than comfort. The bill could open the door for many other groups to be discriminated against as well.

Matthew C. Walker, history professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University, wrote an op-ed to CNN denouncing the bill. The country had seen laws of this kind before, and the results were never pretty.

"[The bill] will lead to marginalization and oppression by allowing bigots to deny gay people access to virtually any business or service," Walker wrote. "The road to Indian genocide, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment, the Holocaust and other iterations of human persecution began with laws that isolated and dehumanized entire groups of people."

Walker may have been referring to events dating 50 years back and beyond, but Arizona's latest bill mirrors another, much more recent state law that opened the door for discrimination against a specific minority group.

In 2010, Arizona once again drew national criticism when it enacted one of the strongest anti-illegal immigration laws in history with Senate Bill 1070, aka the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The law requires that immigrants have their legal documents on hand at all times, as it grants permission for police officers to question anyone under suspicion of entering the country illegally.

Many came out against the law, saying it was racist and unconstitutional, and that it would encourage law enforcement to single out Latinos. President Obama himself criticized the bill as "misguided" and advised the Justice Department to question the law's legality.

Still, Governor Jan Brewer was confident in her decision to sign off on the bill, saying that it represented "another tool for our state to use as we work to solve a crisis we did not create and the federal government has refused to fix."

The crisis she refers to is, of course, Arizona's long battle against illegal immigration. The Grand Canyon state is home to an estimated 460,000 illegals and its desert border remains the most popular entry point for thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans hoping to get into the country.

With the country's economy on the decline, illegal immigrants became an easy target for the source of the state's troubles. There was also a fear that the violence from Mexico's drug wars could spread to Arizona. The unsolved murder of Robert Krentz, suspected to be connected to drug smuggling, was cited as motivation for the state's sudden crusade to end illegal immigration.

Yet, the state's decision to support a bill birthed from an increasingly prevalent xenophobic attitude towards Latino immigrants could end up shooting Arizona in the foot. Regardless of the bill's stated intentions, it was and still is clear to all that the bill was intended to scare illegal immigrants away from Arizona. Even if it was somewhat successful in that task, it was also was successful in marking Arizona as a state hostile towards a group of people that make up 29.6 percent of its population. It made Arizona the poster state of intolerance.

At the time, those in office who supported the bill seemed shocked that the national opposition was as strong as it was. The Arizona Republic reported on Rep. Michele Reagan's surprised response at the outcry:

"The majority of us who voted yes on that bill, myself included, did not expect or encourage an outcry from the public ... Nobody envisioned boycotts. Nobody anticipated the emotion, the prayer vigils. The attitude was: These are the laws, let's start following them."

Why would should any politician have been surprised that a bill that so obviously intended to target Latinos be rejected by a country with a massively growing Hispanic population? Latinos make up over 16 percent of the U.S. population, and that number is growing at an incredible rate. From 2000 to 2010, the Latino population increased by 43 percent.

This poses a major political problem not only for Arizona, but the majority of the Western United States. The West is made up of mostly white, mostly conservative states, but that may change given the ever growing Latino population.

The Latino population represents a largely untapped source of votes for both parties. Yet studies show that, rather than swearing allegiance to any one party, many Latinos prefer to vote with the party that they feel is on their side.

In the battle to win the Latino vote, Democrats are winning pretty handily. A report from America's Voice and Latino Decisions shows that 39 percent of Latinos surveyed support the Democratic Party. Only 15 percent support the Republican Party. Even more telling, 36 percent of Latinos surveyed say they would support whichever side they believed supported the Latino community best.

The results for Arizona reflected the national results, with 39 percent Latinos voting democrat, and 41 percent willing to back the party who represented them best.

"We know that immigration reform is not just one issue but a key to several," including better jobs and better education," said Arizona Democratic Party spokesman DJ Quinlan, as reported by Latina Lista. "Republicans will soon find this issue is a disqualifier for them unless something changes."

He also noted that most of Arizona's young population is non-white. If the Democratic Party succeeds in capturing their votes, then the traditionally red state could easily go blue.

Just like in the case of Latinos, Arizona's support of Senate Bill 1062 only alienates a group of people necessary for the state's success. Many companies threatened to leave the state if Governor Brewer signed off on the bill, and The Greater Phoenix Economic Center wrote a letter to the governor warning her that the economic consequences come be potentially disastrous. Many businesses took to social media, denouncing the bill and proudly proclaiming that their doors were open to any customers, regardless of sexual orientation.

In the end, the pressure was such that Brewer, despite affirming her belief in a store owner's right to deny service to any customer, decided to veto the bill. To those defenders of the law, the response may have seemed unwarranted. Yet, it sends an important message to Arizona and the nation as a whole moving forward. Laws made on the basis of intolerance cannot and will not be tolerated.

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