In preparation for what we hoped would be a very different legislative session in 2021, the Secular AZ legal department scoured the entire Arizona code to find all statutes related to religion and determine what needed to be fixed. We searched for “religion”, “religious,” “god,” “church,” or “faith-based.”
We were astounded to discover 220 different statutes.
Many were necessary statutes that prohibited discrimination based on religion, e.g. in employment and public accommodation. A small number related to exemptions due to the practices of specific sects, such as kosher and halal butchering practices, minors drinking wine at religious ceremonies, higher penalties for criminal acts against a religious building, wearing religious head coverings, etc. These we left alone.
But those statutes — and there are many — that allow religious treatment, prayer, or laying on of hands to substitute for health care are concerning. If a person wants that for themselves, that is fine… but if the public is paying for it (such as workers compensation, an industrial accident, or AHCCCS) that should not be allowed on the public dollar. Some people have taken this to the absurd level of refusing to wear masks, thus putting many other individuals and the economy in jeopardy for their “beliefs.”
The next category was more concerning, with a great number of statutes that use god language in a required oath, e.g. in court, or excuse behavior due to an “act of god.” These are simple fixes by using “swear or affirm” and removing the god language from the oath. For the “act of god” language, the term “force majeure” is already an acceptable replacement.
Violating the Establishment Clause
Also of some concern is the number of religious or faith-based institutions or people in government enterprise. There is no requirement that non-religious people be represented in those bodies making government policy. Many of these positions are on “family related” committees and advisory boards… as if non-religious folks don’t have families? In some programs, such as the healthy family program, the program is allowed to push for people to be involved in religion.
I would argue that this is a violation of the First Amendment establishment clause. There is no evidence that being involved with a religion makes a family any healthier! Children are also allowed to be excused from school, which interferes with their tax-payer-funded education. Often, state-funded treatment programs give no options other than religious ones. This has been litigated in other states but successfully resolved thus far in AZ.
Of increasing concern is the number of exemptions given to religious organizations because they are religious. This includes wine, chickens, bank deposits, and others. The exemptions regarding corporations are especially concerning. Such corporations can exempt themselves from many of the reporting and transparency requirements to their own members as well as to the public. This can result in fraud, such as was seen in the Baptist Foundation of Arizona case in 2006.
Religious Exemptions for Clergy and Healthcare Providers
Of special concern are the provisions exempting clergy from reporting child abuse or having to testify. Two bills were introduced last year into the legislature to resolve this, but were not heard. Given the well-known history of clergy abuse of children, keeping this protection for clergy is very dangerous and harmful for children.
The statutes that allow medical professionals to refuse treatment based on their so-called “religious beliefs” have resulted in serious medical harm to patients. Not only is it a violation of medical ethics, but for the safety of patients, this must be stopped.
Likewise the ability to refuse to vaccinate your child based on religious belief or in fact no reason at all is medically dangerous to public health and individual children. These provisions elevate religious belief above public safety and put the public at risk, especially vulnerable persons.
The taxation exemptions have always been a problem. The statute that allows business to lease to religious entities and then get a tax deduction is even more concerning, since the exemption is extended to non-religious corporations. An earlier analysis by our group found that the state is losing more than $1 million a year in tax money from this. Churches make money or they don’t… just like every other business. If they don’t, they won’t be burdened with taxes. If they do, they should pay like every other business since they are using infrastructure created and paid for by taxpayers — roads and streets, mail services, internet, courts, corporation commission, education system, libraries, zoning, traffic control, law enforcement, etc.
Codified Discrimination Based on Religion
Very concerning is the discrimination allowed by religious organizations because they are religious. For example, failure to oversee charter schools, refusal to provide medical treatment or insurance, failure to protect employees from discrimination, or refusal to follow the patient’s wishes. The failure to oversee charter schools has resulted in a cash cow of public monies to the founders (often legislators) as reported in the Arizona Republic in a 2018 expose. The refusal to provide appropriate medical services harms the employees directly and public health indirectly.
Other favoritism given to religious organizations includes:
For reasons unknown, corporate boards are given carte blanche to believe the statements of religious people without doing due diligence as to the truth of the statements. As in the Baptist Foundation case, this can result in real harm to the customers and the public. The conflict of interest provisions don’t apply either.
Even more astounding is that a student can give a completely wrong answer on a test, e.g. that the earth is 6,000 years old, and can get credit if that wrong answer is allegedly based on the student’s religious beliefs. Science does not care whether you believe it or not; it is the truth. While religions can discriminate against us, we can’t discriminate against them e.g. in issuing contracts.
Establishment of Religion by the State
In addition to those sections explicitly based on religion, there remain sections where religion is not stated directly but is the under girding reason. For example, abstinence education (a complete failure), adultery, and all the abortion provisions that base law-making on the belief of one sect that life begins at conception when many other sects do not agree. This is establishment of religion by the state.
This review of the Arizona statutes shows clearly that if there is any “war,” it is on the nonreligious, not on religion. In fact, religious belief and religious institutions are given advantage after advantage, from tax breaks to lack of transparency, from exemption from many laws to the ability to discriminate and punishing others who attempt to act on their beliefs.
We do not have neutrality on religion – we have favoritism for a certain religion. We must even these scales.
The priorities for the 2021 legislative session will be discussed at the (virtual) Secular Summit on Dec. 5.
Dianne Post, Legal Director
Secular Communities for AZ