Press release on extreme legal immunity bill for religious groups

Secular Coalition for Arizona – www.secularaz.org

Contact: Tory Roberg, Director of Government Affairs – tory@secularaz.org – 623-570-6396

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Extreme legal immunity for religious groups decried by community organizations

(Mon., Mar. 8, 2021) Phoenix, Ariz. — Faith communities, civil liberties organizations, and other community groups today released a joint statement raising the alarm about an Arizona bill that would provide unprecedented legal immunity for religious organizations that violate nearly any criminal or civil law at any time. The statement reads:

As community leaders and advocates committed to the safety of our communities, we are deeply concerned about the incredible danger posed by HB 2648. This bill is disguised as religious liberty legislation protecting the right to worship during public emergencies, yet whether intentionally or unintentionally, the bill as written would give religious organizations immunity from all criminal and civil liability for any behavior connected to that organization’s religious exercise. This means religious schools and organizations could avoid liability for child abuse; religious hospitals could avoid accountability for refusal of services; employees of religious schools and hospitals could lose the right to sue for harassment, discrimination, or criminal behavior; a house of worship could disregard fire codes; religious daycares could refuse to comply with child-protection laws. The list of potential abuses and harms is endless.

Religious freedom is indeed an essential right, and as such, it already has strong federal and state protection, even in a time of crisis — including during our current pandemic. The Arizona Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion,” and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings protect worship services during a time of crisis.

HB 2648 goes far beyond the current law to allow religious organizations to directly endanger members of the public and the members of those organizations themselves. We implore our Arizona State Senators to vote down this dangerous bill that jeopardizes the lives and wellbeing of children and other vulnerable people.

The statement was signed by: National Council of Jewish Women AZ (NCJWAZ); Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition (PAFCO); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (ACLU of Arizona); Secular Coalition for Arizona (Secular AZ); NARAL Pro Choice America; Equality Arizona (EQ AZ); Desert Star Family Planning; Arizona Center for Women’s Advancement (ACWA); Arizona NOW; American Association of University Women Arizona (AAUWAZ); Affinis Humanity; Arizona Jews For Justice (AJJ).

HB 2648 passed the Arizona House on February 23 with a unanimous Republican majority along with Democrats César Chávez; Diego Espinoza; Alma Hernandez; Aaron Lieberman; Jennifer Longdon; Robert Meza; and Amish Shah. The bill passed the Senate Government Committee today [along party lines].

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Secular Coalition for Arizona (Secular AZ) is a nonprofit advocacy organization that works to ensure a secular state government. We lobby on behalf of all individuals who believe that public policy free of religious preference is the best way to ensure freedom of conscience for Arizonans of all faiths and of none. Secular AZ is the local affiliate of the Secular Coalition for America.

Attachments:

Arizona HB 2648

HB 2648 one page talking points

Christian Nationalism is Coming for You

“[Christian Nationalists’] 20-year court packing scheme has resulted in decisions that imprint Christianity in society as privileged, and they use the court system to create exceptions for them. The recent decisions allowing churches to violate public safety standards and continue spreading Covid is a clear example.  Now our state legislators want to enshrine that favoritism in law with HB2648.  The bill passed the House 38-22 with seven Democrats voting with the Republican majority. Exemptions from the law for “sincerely held religious beliefs” are simply code to be able to discriminate. Religious doctrine said that it was permissible for one people to enslave another, that the races could not intermarry, and that a certain race could not join the church. The court has declined to question these so those called “beliefs.”  Religious freedom to the Christian nationalists means privilege for those with the “right” religion.  To claim they want neutrality is a farce when one sect already has a leg up….

…America is special not because we are a chosen people, but because we did not organize a government based on religion. The countries that are based on religion – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan – are notorious for their violations of human rights, violence toward women, and silencing of those who disagree. Christian nationalism fueled the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.  We must not underestimate its danger to our democracy.”

Read the entire op-ed by Secular AZ Legal Director Dianne Post in the March 2, 2021 Arizona Capitol Times.

HB2648: Unprecedented Legal Immunity for Religious Groups

HB2648 is the single most dangerous piece of Christian nationalist legislation introduced at in years. (Click here to read the bill’s text.)

 

TAKE ACTION

 

Proponents of HB 2648 claim that the bill merely protects the right to worship during public emergencies. But the bill is much more extreme. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, this bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As written, it would essentially give religious organizations a “get out of jail free” card for nearly any violation of any law at any time. No state has ever adopted an exemptions law this radical, for good reason: It would be dangerous and blatantly unconstitutional.

Under the bill, the government, including courts, would be forbidden from imposing any “monetary fee, civil or criminal penalty, damages award, or injunction” against a religious organization in connection with the organization’s exercise of religion. No criminal liability. No civil liability. A complete exemption from complying with any law whenever a religious organization claims to be engaged in the exercise of religion.

Giving Religious Groups Blanket Immunity from the Law Harms Others

The broad exemptions in HB 2648 would allow religious organizations to engage in behavior that harms others with total impunity. For example:

• Religious schools and organizations could claim immunity from criminal or civil liability for child abuse.
• A religiously motivated hate group could avoid prosecution for criminal activities associated with its religious beliefs.
• Religious organizations of all types could be shielded from state and municipal nondiscrimination laws.
• A house of worship that routinely violates the fire code or exceeds capacity limits during worship services could not be fined or required by a court to comply with the law.
• A patient would lose the right to sue a religious hospital for medical neglect or reckless care provided consistent with the hospital’s religious beliefs.
• A family whose child was injured or killed due to negligence or recklessness by a religious school could be prevented from suing the school.
• Arizona could not recover state funds used by religious organizations for fraudulent or improper purposes, as long as the funds were used while engaging in religious activities.
• Employees of religious schools and hospitals could be prevented from suing if their employers engaged in harassment, discrimination, or even criminal behavior.
• Individuals and groups are less likely to contract with religious organizations (e.g., to host weddings, events, or even provide insurance) if they cannot enforce their rights in court.

Arizona Law Already Provides Strong Protections for Religious Exercise

HB 2648 is not only dangerous. It is unnecessary. Current Arizona law already protects religious freedom, even in times of crisis. For example, the Arizona Religious Freedom Restoration Act provides that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the government can meet a very high legal standard.
HB 2648 is also much more extreme than the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings, which already protect worship services during times of crisis. The Court has made clear that government may not impose emergency restrictions on worship services that are more severe than restrictions imposed on comparable secular gatherings. HB 2648 would go far beyond this common-sense rule to prevent the government from imposing any restriction or liability on a religious organization at any time. Even if the religious organization directly endangers the lives of the public or the members of the organization itself, the government’s hands would be tied.

 

This bill has passed the State House and Senate Government Committee. It likely will proceed to the Senate floor.

What can you do?

  1. Click here to email your Senator, Governor, and other key lawmakers.
  2. Register for the virtual Secular Day at the Capitol 3/15, where we will lobby against HB2648

A Message from the Interim Chair Re: Zenaido Quintana

During Executive Session of the January 9, 2021 Secular AZ Board Meeting, Zenaido Quintana tendered his resignation effective immediately.  Not all Board members were present at the time so the remaining members scheduled a meeting on January 10 so all members of the Board could participate in a discussion of next steps.  The Board met via Zoom and accepted Mr. Quintana’s resignation.  Given that the Vice Chair is on a leave of absence, the Board asked me to step in as Interim Chair while the Board considers how to structure the Organization for future success.

Zenaido has established a very impressive history of accomplishments, both in the leadership of the Coalition and with assembling and building the Liaised Organizations.  This was no more evident than when the Phoenix New Times recognized “The Secular Coalition for Arizona” as The Best Activist Group for 2020. 

The Board and I want to recognize and thank Zenaido for the tremendous work he contributed over so many years. 

During the coming days and weeks, I will be reaching out to our community to ensure that we understand your objectives and to keep you aware of and understanding what we are doing.  Thank you for your continuing support to our efforts to be the voice of secular voters.

Philip Lentz

Interim Chair

In Memoriam: Mark Nisski

Secular AZ mourns the loss of Board Member and friend Mark Nisski, who passed away this week from Covid-19.

Mark was a bright light in Arizona’s secular community. A true secular champion, Mark broke new ground when he founded the Kingman Freethinkers, a freethought group in Kingman, AZ.

Here, Mark put his boundless passion for secular values to work, creating a much-needed and very welcome sense of community in northwestern Arizona. 

Mark quickly realized the need for and potential of his group, and started building connections across the state. In 2019, he was honored as one of our “Secular Stars” for his work with the Kingman Freethinkers. Earlier this year, he joined the Secular AZ Board. 

We will sorely miss Mark’s enthusiasm, his intellectual curiosity, his energy, and — most of all — his kindness. He inspired those around him to look at the world differently and to take action to make things better. Our hearts and thoughts are with Mark’s family.

Phoenix New Times Names Secular AZ “Best Activist Group” for Best of Phoenix 2020

“If you see a state official promoting the Holy Ghost, who you gonna call? The Secular Coalition for Arizona, that’s who. This freethinking organization celebrated its 10th anniversary in the state this year, and many Arizonans are glad to have it. The group protects the rights not just of nonbelievers, but of all Arizonans who don’t think public money, resources, and messages should be spent pushing religious dogma.

Chaired and directed by Zenaido Quintana, and with high-powered hitters like lobbyist and spokesperson Tory Roberg and progressive attorney Dianne Post on the payroll, this is a group that regularly gets attention. Whether it’s slamming Governor Doug Ducey for posts about Jesus during Easter, denouncing Bible studies in public schools, or fighting for atheist lawmakers’ rights to give the invocation at the State Legislature, the Secular Coalition for Arizona has been the state’s voice of rational disbelief.”

 

Thank you, Phoenix New Times! We’re honored – and it’s all thanks to the Secular AZ Board, Members, Supporters, Donors and Staff who fight for the (constitutional) separation of church and state every day!

 

 

Christians Only: Nonbelievers Need Not Apply?

The AZ Legislature has a long history of discrimination against atheist legislators, who have been repeatedly hazed, harassed, and belittled for opening legislative sessions with secular invocations.

It happened again this week, at our annual Secular Day at the Capitol. Senate President Karen Fann’s Office confirmed that Sen Juan Mendez would give the opening invocation that day, in order to represent the growing number of Arizonans who don’t believe in God. She broke her word and gave the invocation to Senator Mesnard, who gave a (conveniently ready-to-go) Christian prayer.

This action symbolically slapped Sen Mendez and AZ atheists, dozens of whom were in the gallery that day, in the face.

We’re tired of this disrespect toward nonbelieving Arizonans. We’re also tired of the controversy that surrounds public prayer and the petty theatrics it seems to attract.

Arizona can do better.

We’re calling upon Senate President Fann to stop the religious bigotry and end invocations in the Arizona Senate.

Please sign our petition to end invocations in the AZ Senate.

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Tell Senate President Karen Fann: Stop Religious Discrimination at the AZ Capitol

 

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Click here to sign this petition.

Secular Day at the Capitol: February 24, 2020

Secular Day at Capitol Map and Short Agenda Final

Save the date: Secular Day at the Capitol is February 24, 2020.

Calling ALL who support separation of church and state to join us on February 24, 2020, for our 7th Annual Secular Day at the Capitol. Here’s what you can expect:

– Learn about current threats to secular government

– Advocacy training

– Meetings with your lawmakers

– Group introductions from the House and Senate

– SPECIAL GUEST SPEAKER: DAVID TAMAYO, Founder and President of Hispanic Freethinkers

– Lunch & shirt included!

Registration closes February 17, 2020, so don’t delay!

RSVP for this FREE event by February 7  to qualify for your Secular AZ bracelet. 

Secular Summit 2019 Tickets Available

Join us on December 7 for the 5th annual Secular Summit!

This members-only event is a day of secular networking, education, advocacy and action, including updates from our legal team and our Director of Government Affairs. (Not a member yet? Become one today!)

Our keynote speaker this year is Mandisa Thomas, founder of Black Nonbelievers. More speakers to be announced!

Tickets are just $15, lunch included. Become a host, super host, or event sponsor and help support the fight to keep Arizona secular!

RSVP now to save your seat. Tickets on sale until 12/5, so don’t wait!

See you at the Summit!

AZ Supreme Court Upholds Bigotry in the Name of Religious Freedom

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Secular government supporters decry Supreme Court decision upholding religious discrimination against LGBTQ customers

(Wed., Sept 17, 2019) Phoenix, Ariz. — The Arizona Supreme Court decided 4-3 yesterday that business owners who cite a conflict of religious belief can be permitted to refuse to serve certain customers. Specifically, the case ruled that the city of Phoenix could not enforce an ordinance which prohibits discrimination in providing products or services at places of public accommodation based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or disability.

The court ruled in favor of two self-described Christian artists at Brush and Nib Studio, saying the City cannot force them to create custom wedding invitations for same-sex couples. The women argued that the ordinance violates their First Amendment and Arizona constitutional rights to religion and free speech. 

The women were represented by Scottsdale-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a legal group which challenges similar laws nationwide, and which is identified as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Per attorney and Secular Coalition for Arizona board member Dianne Post: “As the court said in Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers, it’s not about cakes or flowers—or in this case, invitations— any more than the sit-ins in the south in the 1960s were about sandwiches and soda. This is about equality and fairness. Movements toward theocracy betray American values and the Constitution.

“How do we know a person is actually motivated by a sincere religious belief rather than ignorance or bigotry? What’s really happening here is an effort to give special privileges to a narrow segment of Christians while stigmatizing other groups and refusing them the constitutional protection of the 14th Amendment— that all citizens shall not be denied equal rights under the law. This is clearly a political decision based on Christian nationalism, accomplished by the court-packing plan of Governor Ducey. Rather than engage the issue, the court has chosen to see, hear, and speak no evil in the face of evil standing in front of them.”

Legal experts have anticipated a challenge like this returning to the U.S. Supreme Court since the ADF represented a Colorado baker facing penalty under that state’s anti-discrimination law in 2018.

We Did It!! Bill Funneling Taxpayer $ to Fake “Women’s Health Clinics” Defeated

GOOD NEWS! Late night, the AZ Senate voted down a terrible bill that would have funneled taxpayer money into fake “women’s health” clinics that were, in reality, fronts for pro-life groups that seek to thwart access to safe, legal abortion.

 

HB 2759 got just 15 votes, one short of what’s needed -thanks in large part to secular supporters like you who raised their voices loudly in opposition to this bill.

As Secular AZ’s Tory Roberg says, “We are strong, but we are mighty!”

We want to thank those who spoke out, attended the rally at the State Capitol, and contacted their lawmakers to voice their opposition to this clear violation of separation of church and state.

Secular AZ took your voices to the House and Senate, where Tory stood up and testified in front of both appropriations committees. Secular AZ was alone in providing public testimony… and these efforts made the difference!

But this is just one of many such battles. Did you know that Secular AZ is the only group with a paid lobbyist, full legal team, and active board of volunteers that fight tirelessly for separation of church and state at the Capitol?

We don’t receive funding from any national groups. Instead, we rely solely on the generosity of Arizonans like you who understand the value of this work.

When the lines between church and state blur, we see attempts to:
  • limit access to reproductive health care
  • restrict women’s right to choose
  • install policies that discriminate against LGTBQ individuals
  • pass bills that harm sound science and medicine
  • decrease funding for public schools

With more than 4,000 supporters around the state, we amplify the voice of reason at the Arizona State Capitol as we fight for secular public policies that benefit allArizonans.

Help us keep fighting! Now, more than ever, we need your support. Please donate today to help keep religious influence out of Arizona’s public policy.

“Be the Curators of Inspiration”: Listen to Robert People’s Secular Invocation

Follow this link to watch Robert Peoples of the Affinis Humanity Coalition deliver a moving secular invocation before the AZ State Senate as a guest of Sen. Andrea Dalessandro and Secular AZ.

https://youtu.be/xHvVnrprETQ

For a transcript, visit Patheos Friendly Atheist Blog at: https://friendlyatheist.patheos.com/2019/04/02/humanist-delivers-invocation-in-az-senate-be-the-curators-of-inspiration/?fbclid=IwAR07YMntqGvHQOcTk-1XdC-C8zfSEKJ7Z25YnXoTy3EVdwauaKG6ET5-2X0