GAIL COLLINS

Gail Collins: Business as unusual

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Arizona. Wow. How often do you find yourself saying, “Go, entrenched interests of the business community!” Yet here we are.

Responding to howls from the state’s economic interests, Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against gay people on the grounds of religious conviction. Ms. Brewer is an erratic politician, but she’s not crazy. After all, she did once refer to the state Capitol as “that hellhole.”

It would have been hard to ignore the pressure. American Airlines and Apple said the bill was a terrible idea. So did the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. The list went on and on. “The entire business community is galvanized in a way that I’ve never seen against this legislation,” said Sen. John McCain.

Several of the state senators who had voted for the bill, including one of the co-sponsors, were so terrified that they begged Ms. Brewer to use her veto pen to save them from themselves.

What do you think this whole scene means? True, Arizona is a rather strange state. But you don’t generally see a Legislature go out of its way to tick off its own moneyed power structure. And you hardly ever see a business establishment howling this loud about something that doesn’t involve tax hikes.

This has been building up for a long time. The old order in Arizona has been fuming because it’s been elbowed out of political control by people who are less interested in economic development than arresting illegal immigrants, exposing Barack Obama as a Kenyan and combating the scourge of same-sex marriage.

“I remember having a meeting with some folks I’d call country-club Republicans and listening to them bemoan the fact that they have no more influence because of the Clean Elections law,” said Rodolfo Espino, a professor at Arizona State University.

We will come to a screeching halt here and re-examine that thought.

Yes! Part of the super-weirdness of Arizona politics appears to be the result of the state’s 1998 public financing law, which provided tons of matching funds to unwealthy-but-energetic candidates from the social right at the expense of the pragmatic upper class. The Supreme Court took the teeth out of the law in 2011, but, by then, the traditional Republican elite had lost its place at the head of the political table.

Meanwhile, the business community has both practicality and righteousness on its side. The bill was really bad for business. Plus, it was narrow and mean. It was written in response to incidents in New Mexico and Colorado in which gay couples successfully sued commercial establishments whose owners refused to take their wedding photographs or make them a wedding cake.

Fear of being forced to bake for homosexuals is apparently so deep-seated that the Arizona lawmakers were able to ignore the fact that, unlike New Mexico and Colorado, their state has no law barring discrimination against gays in public accommodations. It’s already possible for a business to refuse to even sell them a Valentine.

“Can you give me a specific example of someone in Arizona who’s been forced to do something against their religious belief, or [was] successfully sued because of their faith?” Anderson Cooper asked state Sen. Al Melvin.

“Again, I think if anything, you — this bill is pre-emptive to protect priests,” said Mr. Melvin.

This was on CNN, and I really recommend watching it as a gold-standard example of the perils of putting state senators on national television. At one point, Mr. Cooper asked whether, under the proposed law, a bank officer could refuse to lend money to a divorced woman because of religious convictions about the sanctity of marriage.

“I don’t know of anybody in Arizona that would discriminate against a fellow human being ... no Christian or no Jew that I know of,” said Mr. Melvin.

This week Delta, which is headquartered in Atlanta, urged rejection of both the Arizona bill and another religious-rights measure that’s pending in the Georgia Legislature. Meanwhile, in Ohio, sponsors of a right-to-refuse bill announced they were pulling the plug.

Maybe we have reached a critical historical juncture. Struggles for human rights always begin with brave men and women who stand up, isolated, against the forces of oppression. But, in the United States, victory really arrives on the glorious day when the people with money decide discrimination is bad for business. Thanks, Arizona.

Gail Collins is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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