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Arizona's shameful 'right to discriminate' bill

By Matthew C. Whitaker
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Whitaker: Arizona legislature approved a bill that would allow discrimination
  • He says the bill shields those who show religion prompts their discrimination
  • He says bill aimed at LGTB community but could affect many groups
  • Whitaker: Arizona complicated, not as biased as often depicted

Editor's note: Matthew C. Whitaker is an ASU Foundation professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Peace Be Still: Modern Black America From World War II to Barack Obama." He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker.

(CNN) -- Arizona set itself up for yet another self-inflicted political wound, international humiliation, costly boycotts and historical shame now that its legislature has passed a bill giving people the right to discriminate.

The bill was written by the Center for Arizona Policy and a Christian legal organization called the Alliance Defending Freedom. They were inspired, in part, by the case of a New Mexico wedding photographer who was taken to court after refusing to shoot a gay commitment ceremony. The bill seeks to shield Christians from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community who dare to seek equal protection under the law.

Matthew C. Whitaker
Matthew C. Whitaker

Specifically, the bill protects all individuals, businesses and religious institutions from discrimination lawsuits if they can show that their discriminatory actions were motivated by religious convictions.

Under the guise of religious freedom, however, the bill would enable businesses potentially to discriminate against virtually anyone -- not just Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, agnostics and atheists, but also unwed mothers, Rastafarians and Budweiser T-shirt wearers. This bill is arbitrary, capricious and antithetical to the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood that inform our documents of freedom.

It will lead to marginalization and oppression by allowing bigots to deny gay people access to virtually any business or service. 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.

What's in Ariz.'s 'religious freedom' bill?
Arizona protesters: Stop 'anti-gay' bill
Arizona anti-gay bill sparks outrage

Arizona's race relations and cultural politics are often misunderstood by the rest of the country. Racial diversity and progressivism exist within the predominantly white and conservative power structure of the Grand Canyon State. This has created an interesting dynamic.

Arizona has sometimes made racial and cultural inroads ahead of the national curve, while fear of major demographic shifts, including a growing LGBTQ community, and the erosion of white privilege have unearthed racial stereotyping, homophobia and xenophobic policies. Many outside the state misunderstand this dynamic, assuming we are a wholly backward place without understanding that it is much more complicated than that.

Nevertheless, Arizona now has the dubious designation as the first state to pass an anti-gay bill that seeks to shun and segregate in the name of religion.

Similar legislation has been put forward in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Tennessee. The Arizona measure is the only bill that has passed.

There is a saying: "history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." The rhythm of chauvinism and acrimony in Arizona endures. The state long resisted creating a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., which it finally did in 1992. It is not too late to shift course, however. Gov. Jan Brewer has the power to put Arizona back on the right side of history. The "right to discriminate" bill now sits on her desk.

The bill passed Thursday, She has five days to reject it or sign it into law.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew C. Whitaker.

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