How much power do religious-interest groups really have at the Arizona Capitol?
“It was the first day that I guess I made it more public that I received any kind of backlash about it,” Rep. Juan Mendez says. “I was a little afraid, coming out.”
It can be difficult for any member of a minority group to put themselves in the public sphere as a representative for that group, but in the case of Mendez, a Democrat legislator for District 26, his “coming out” moment was particularly challenging. Mendez didn’t “come out” as gay. He came out as a member of another minority group in Arizona, a group that represents only 6 percent of our population, according to recent polls.
He admitted he was an atheist. And he did so by asking to deliver the opening prayer for a 2013 session of the Arizona House of Representatives – a “prayer” that started with Mendez asking people not to bow their heads. He quoted Carl Sagan and identified himself as a “secular humanist.”
The response to his invocation was greater – and more divisive – than the lawmaker anticipated. According to Mendez, Republican Steve Smith (then a member of the House of Representatives, now a state senator) “stood up and started yelling about how what I did offended him and offended his religion, and that the whole legislative body had to vote to redo my prayer.” The majority of the legislature voted for the redo, which is not surprising given that both the Arizona House and Senate have long begun their sessions with a prayer. What was surprising, Mendez says, was the support he says he received from colleagues who harbor closeted non-theist views. “After that, I had a lot of people who have come out and told me that they are sympathetic, and that they are of the same mindset,” Mendez says. “People have said all kinds of things about why they’re not willing to take the same stance I’ve taken publicly, but people have confided in me.”
Mendez and groups like Secular Coalition for Arizona say religious beliefs are increasingly and inappropriately being introduced into public policy; they want to see more separation of church and state in the legislature. On the other end of the spectrum, faith-based lobbying groups like Center for Arizona Policy and Arizona politicians like State Senators Sylvia Allen and Steve Smith have defended the intermingling of God and government as something that goes back to the country’s birth, and express concern for what they see as the erosion of religious freedom and foundational values.
Mendez’s moment was a milestone and heartening for secularists, but religious conservatives are feeling emboldened, too, after Republican Governor Doug Ducey signed two bills into law that were championed by Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) – one which provides tax exemptions for nonprofit religious groups that rent their properties, and another that prohibits abortion coverage in health care plans purchased through the federal marketplace. CAP president Cathi Herrod, a presence at the Capitol to varying degrees for the past 10 years, applauded Ducey signing both bills.
So is the new governor in lockstep with religious conservatives? Maybe not. A few weeks after signing the CAP-supported laws, Ducey denounced the department of Child Protective Service’s temporary ban on adoptions by same-sex couples, and demanded it immediately be lifted. CAP, which supported a 2011 bill to give adoption preference to married couples consisting of a man and a woman, did not comment at press time on Ducey’s same-sex adoption decision – which stunned some of his conservative supporters and drew praise from people on the other side of the political aisle.
Just last year, religious influence on public policy seemed to be waning in Arizona. In her last term, Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a handful of bills backed by faith-based groups, including a Religious Freedom Restoration Act clarification bill that would have allowed business owners to deny services to LGBT people based on their religious beliefs, and also ixnaying a bill to provide tax exemptions for religious organizations that rent property. Now Brewer is gone, Ducey is in office, and the picture is murky. Is faith-based lawmaking once again on the rise? And how do Arizonans feel about that?
The push-pull between theists and non-theists at the Capitol is not new. During a U.S. Senate speech in 1981, one of Arizona’s most famous word-cleaving politicos, Barry Goldwater, said, “I am... angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of ‘conservatism.’”
The battle has intensified over the past 20 years. Since 1995, when CAP was founded by Len Munsil (now the president of Arizona Christian University), it and other religion-based lobbying groups like Focus on the Family and Alliance Defending Freedom have backed hundreds of bills relating to issues like abortion, marriage and religious liberty. In Arizona, dozens of CAP-supported bills have passed under every governor (see sidebar on page 31), even seeing a high success rate under Janet Napolitano, Arizona’s only Democrat governor since CAP’s founding. However, a great number of CAP-driven bills also died on the legislative floor, if not on the governor’s desk.
But today’s religious conservatives are feeling justifiably encouraged by Ducey’s cozy relationship with CAP. Herrod campaigned for Ducey last year, lauding the candidate’s putative “pro-family, pro-life” values and serving as one of his policy advisers. Ducey has donated money to CAP through his nonprofit Ducey Family Foundation, and has served as a speaker at several CAP events, including the organization’s “Reclaiming Hope” dinner fundraiser in April, where attendees paid $2,500-$50,000 per table to hear Ducey speak alongside conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Ducey’s stamp on the two new CAP-backed laws have secular groups on edge, leaving many to wonder how amenable the governor will be to faith-driven lawmaking. (PHOENIX magazine requested interviews with Ducey and Herrod for this story. Ducey was unable to accommodate us within our deadline. Herrod agreed to answer questions via email but did not respond by press time.)
Of the two bills Ducey signed, HB 2128 provides tax exemptions for churches that rent their properties. One point of protest opponents had was that the new law gives the tax break exclusively to religious organizations, and fails to provide the same rental-tax exemption to other nonprofits, like food banks and domestic violence shelters. “In terms of impact on the budget, it’s not a huge impact. It’s over a couple million dollars, from what we understand,” says Zenaido Quintana of Secular Coalition for Arizona. “But it’s one more step toward our government providing subsidies for religious worship, which we believe is unconstitutional.”
Michael Hunter, vice president for external affairs at the Goldwater Institute, is the former tax policy adviser and chief legislative lobbyist for Jan Brewer, who vetoed a similar tax-break bill for churches. He says it would have been logistically impossible to include all nonprofit organizations that lease in the new law. Arizona property taxes are complicated, he says, owing to our state’s nine different property classifications (only Minnesota, with 11 classifications, has more) and the varying tax assessment rate for each classification. Class 1, commercial property, is taxed at the highest rate – nearly 19 percent. The lowest assessment rate is Class 9 (where many religious organizations who rent will fall under the new law). Putting a whole horde of nonprofit renters who may be paying high commercial tax rates in a new classification that nearly exempts them would be too costly a shift, Hunter says: “Property taxes are like a balloon. You push down on one side, it increases on the other. So it’s zero sum.”
Democratic Rep. Bruce Wheeler spoke against the bill in a legislative hearing. “By giving this exemption to churches and only to churches and religious properties, you are indeed selecting one nonprofit service over others based on religion, and nothing but religion,” he said.
Arizona Senator Steve Smith points out that churches who own their properties have long had tax exemptions; this law simply provides equal benefit for churches who rent. “Churches have had tax exemptions seemingly forever. So if you’ve got a problem with that, I’d have to go back and start digging to way back when,” he says.
When Ducey signed SB 1318 – the CAP-backed bill that prohibits women who purchase a health care plan through the federal marketplace from using that coverage for abortions – he touted taxpayer protection. “The American people overwhelmingly oppose taxpayer funding of abortions, and it’s no different in Arizona, where we have a long-standing policy against subsidizing them with public dollars,” Ducey said in a statement. “This legislation provides clarity to state law.”
Herrod issued a press release with a photo of Ducey signing the bill, and said, “Governor Ducey is a man of his word. He never shied or backed away from being pro-life, so it’s no surprise he would sign pro-life legislation.”
Ducey did not address the provision in SB 1318 that requires physicians to inform patients undergoing chemical abortions that their abortions are reversible – a provision that’s drawn concern from many in the medical community, who say there are no studies or peer-reviewed research demonstrating the efficacy or safety of such an abortion-reversal. A spokesman for Planned Parenthood told media the organization is considering challenging that provision in court.
Those concerned about the extent of Herrod and CAP’s influence on Ducey may have had some of their fears assuaged when Ducey cleared the way for married same-sex couples to adopt. “I have made it abundantly clear since day one that my administration is unambiguously and unapologetically pro-adoption,” Ducey said in a statement. “All children deserve a loving home, and under my watch, I’m committed to making sure government encourages that.”
Some pundits have characterized the laws supported by CAP as extremist.
The headline in the Huffington Post read, “How One Right-Wing Christian Group Is Leading Arizona’s March Toward Conservative Extremism.” Published on February 28, 2014, the story outlined the influence of Center for Arizona Policy in guiding state laws, detailing 13 of the 123 CAP-supported bills signed into law up to that point, including a 2012 law prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy (later ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals), a bill banning taxpayer funding of human cloning (2005) and one providing access for religious groups to rent school facilities (2003).
A 2014 Phoenix New Times story on Herrod quoted people calling her “the church lady,” “a bully” and “a legislative terrorist.” Liberal political blog Daily Kos referred to CAP in a headline as “A Witches’ Brew of Spine-tingling Politics and Legislation.”
“Maybe the media is very aware of Cathi Herrod and they like to turn her into a villain sometimes. I’ve seen some of that, and honestly, I think... it is unfair,” Michael Hunter says. “But the Catholic Diocese has a presence down there [in the legislature]. Many members of the legislature hold religious views, and so it’s not always Cathi dictating things. She supports a position that’s probably already supported by the majority of the legislature.”
According to its website, the goal of Center for Arizona Policy is “to create an Arizona where: the sanctity of human life is protected from its very beginning to its natural end; marriage and families are strengthened and supported by public policy, not attacked or weakened; religious liberty is affirmed and protected, free from government interference.”
To that end, the majority of CAP bills have focused on those three areas (see sidebar on page 28), but they have also introduced bills related to judicial reform, gambling and education. Not all CAP-sponsored bills are controversial. Many of the bills signed into law by Napolitano – hardly a pushover for conservative special interests – related to education (providing scholarships and job training for teenagers who are wards of the state; creating a post-secondary education grant plan for Arizona residents; even funding for abstinence-until-marriage education). Ultimately, Napolitano signed more CAP-backed bills into law than her Republican predecessor, Jane Hull.
Does such lawmaking reflect the voters’ will? According to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, 69 percent of Arizonans “believe in God – absolutely certain,” slightly lower than the 71 percent national average. But just because somebody identifies as theist doesn’t necessarily imply a preference for faith-based lawmaking. Believers and non-believers seemed equally bemused by comments made by Snowflake-based Republican State Senator Sylvia Allen last March. Debating a concealed-carry gun bill in the state legislature, Allen said, “We are slowly eroding religion at every opportunity that we have. Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.”
Steve Smith hasn’t advocated for mandatory church, but says he will fight attempts to “get God out of government,” because, he says, the two are intrinsically and historically linked. “When you read the Declaration of Independence, when you read the Constitution, God is in it, OK?” he says. “What I would try to tell everybody is: You need to look at how and why this nation was founded. And I believe, as our founding fathers clearly believed, that it was the hand of God that formed our country and made us the greatest nation in the world... I don’t care if people [ask], ‘Hey, are you legislating based on that?’ When people elect people into office, they elect them because of who they are and what they’re going to represent, and their morals, their ideals, and certainly their political views. And it’s been that way since the founding of this nation.”
According to Hunter, sitting governors traditionally do value religious views. “My experiences with the Brewer administration were, she certainly had an interest in communicating with a lot of different people, and a religious perspective certainly did matter to her,” he says. “And a diversity of religious perspectives.”
However, the idea that Herrod has some sort of exclusive access or extra-weighted influence with Ducey strikes Hunter as far-fetched. “She is on quite a long list of people who have the ability to get audiences with governors,” Hunter says. “When the bishop wants to talk to the governor, he gets his audience, but that doesn’t get written about.”
Juan Mendez admits that, as far as concerns that Ducey will be overly amenable to CAP-based bills, “I haven’t seen many things to give me much evidence.”
Zenaido Quintana sounds more worried. “I think he’s pretty much demonstrated that so far, so we expect that will continue to be. We have our work cut out for us,” he says. “We only hope that they overreach, as they continue to do, enough that there’s more of a public perception of the danger of these types of bills being passed and signed by the governor and turned into public policy that affects all Arizonans, when only a very, very small portion of evangelical Christians really support them across the board.”
Secular Coalition for Arizona is building a bigger presence at the Capitol, where SAC lobbyist Tory Anderson advocates for science-based medicine, secular public education, marriage equality, elimination of tax privileges for religious institutions and yes, freedom of religious expression. “We have no quarrel at all with personal religious expression, and we think that is rightfully protected under the First Amendment,” Quintana says. “We believe having it creep into public policy unjustly brings the power of law to the side of those practices in a way that’s inappropriate. And it should be opposed by all Arizonans, even if they embrace those beliefs on a personal level.”
When it comes to the question of whether Arizona will become a godless wasteland or an oppressive theocracy, the answer is really “neither.”
“It becomes an easy thing for people to say, ‘Well, what we’re heading for is a theocracy.’ Or it becomes easy to say, ‘What we’re heading toward is some atheistic, godless society that’s amoral.’ And the truth is, there’s always going to be this clash and this tension,” Hunter says.
“If you don’t want anti-abortion legislation to pass, removing Cathi Herrod doesn’t solve your problem,” he continues. “You would probably have to go much more grassroots and start winning the debate election by election, and bring more pro-choice people in and defeat more pro-life people. But then you’ve got to look at the demographics of Arizona, and the presence of a lot of these larger, mainstream churches and then all of the smaller churches that might have pro-life views, and then all of the non-churchgoing people, frankly, who probably have a fundamental conservatism.”
Quintana believes more civic engagement is the key to better balancing the interests of church and state. “A lot of it is obviously civic participation. There are people who are typically affected by some of these provisions that already exist in marginalized communities – they’re typically poor, they don’t have access to a lot of information, they’re not civically active,” Quintana says. “So we have to do a better job of educating, and from the standpoint of the Secular Coalition, we also have to be a lot more active in bringing communities of faith to support the cause.”
Hunter says the divide isn’t going anywhere. “Atheists have a right to be atheists, and theists have a right to be theists. And those religious beliefs, in both counts, have protection. And if it’s about religious beliefs, I just think we have to be really careful about how we construct laws that would be the bigger problem of a tyranny of the majority going after someone else’s fundamental – dare I say inalienable – rights,” he says. “And so that’s where this crux is, and that’s where the tension exists, and always has since the founding of our republic, and always will. That’s why we have these debates, and that’s why we try to figure it out.”
Since 1995, 130 bills supported by Center for Arizona Policy have become law. What areas of life do they affect most? Here’s a breakdown of CAP’s biggest issues, based on the number of bills they’ve supported in each area.
Abortion - 30%
Education - 22%
Marriage - 16%
Sexual decency/pornography - 13%
Religious liberty - 11%
Other (gambling, gov. accountability, judicial reform) - 8%
How well have Center for Arizona Policy-supported bills fared on a governor-by-governor basis? Here’s the pass-to-veto ratio for every Arizona governor since CAP’s 1995 founding.
Fife Symington (1991-1997)
Jane Hull (1997-2003)
Janet Napolitano (2003-2009)
Jan Brewer (2009-2015)
Doug Ducey (2015-present)
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