In February, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062, a piece of legislation designed to strengthen protection of religious freedom. Passed by a Republican legislature, it was a bill her staff (she is a Republican as well) had helped to craft some weeks before. But her support turned to opposition after an extraordinarily well-orchestrated campaign by gay rights groups turned almost the entire American establishment against the bill. What began as a legislative attempt to define more precisely the line ­between the proper rights of religious conscience and the necessary power of society to coerce became a referendum on “bigotry.” This transformation is remarkable—and troubling.

The Arizona legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law enacted in many states to clarify the full scope of religious freedom in light of recent Supreme Court decisions) in 1999. Since that time, the gay rights movement has been trying to reshape the legal landscape—and is largely succeeding. A baker in Colorado was hauled into court for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding reception. In Oregon, it was a florist. The New Mexico Supreme Court decided that a photographer who wouldn’t take pictures of a lesbian commitment ceremony had violated that state’s anti-discrimination laws.

These developments prompted the Arizona bill, which featured two main points. The first stipulated that individuals and their businesses have protected religious interests. The second made it clear that a defendant could appeal to Arizona’s religious freedom “regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.” With these changes, the Arizona legislature hoped to make sure religious consciences have some protection in social and economic relations governed by anti-discrimination laws—the issue at stake in Colorado, Oregon, and New Mexico.

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