Our Voice: Bill would only disguise legalized discrimination

May 5, 2013 

Our local Republican lawmakers have some work to do if they think a bill they introduced at the end of the regular session in Olympia represents the wishes of a majority of folks in our region.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, is in response to legal action against a Richland flower shop owner who refused service to a gay couple planning to wed. Washington voters recently approved a measure recognizing same-sex marriage in our state.

Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene's Flowers declined to sell the men flowers for their wedding because she said their union did not mesh with her religious beliefs. The state Attorney General's Office filed a consumer protection lawsuit against her, and the couple has filed a civil suit with the assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Both suits claim Stutzman violated state law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The bill introduced by Brown, Hewitt and others would amend the state's non-discrimination law to not burden the "right of an individual or entity to deny services if providing those goods or services would be contrary to the individual or owner's sincerely held religious beliefs, philosophical beliefs, or matters of conscience."

That sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Discrimination based on philosophical or religious beliefs is precisely the kind of behavior that has led to some of worst moments in our country's and world's history.

Unfair treatment is why our country and our state had to put antidiscrimination laws in place. The land where all men are created equal has to have laws to make sure that is the reality.

Groups opposing the legalization of gay marriage in our state last fall cited the ability of businesses to pick and choose their customers based on the business owner's beliefs as an argument against passing the law. They wanted businesses to be able to discriminate against couple's choosing to marry legally. We didn't agree with that then, and we don't agree with that now.

If you have a business open to the public, then you must serve the public under state law.

The bill proposed by Brown opens a can of worms. It is written with far too broad of a brush and essentially legalizes discrimination. We could all find ways to cite philosophical beliefs in order to avoid things we don't like. That doesn't make it right.

And it's embarrassing that all of this activity comes from our community. Our state has that very visible barrier of the Cascade Mountains dividing it. Often attitudes are stereotyped depending on which side of the range you reside. As we all know those stereotypes aren't accurate and certainly don't reflect the beliefs of the entire population of Eastern Washington.

It was bad enough that the original act of discrimination happened in Richland. And now with our own lawmakers arguing for discrimination, it just reinforces the stereotype that Eastern Washington is the home of close-minded hicks.

An aide to Hewitt only added to the mess when he made inappropriate comments to a caller to the senator's office who questioned Hewitt's support of the bill. That went viral, as had the original story of the flower shop debacle.

Tourism and marketing folks in Wallla Walla worry that the support by Hewitt and missteps of his staffer will damage one of the community's most vital economic interests.

Hewitt has now backed off his support, saying the bill as it stands now is not what he wants. He says he probably should have read it more thoroughly. Brown will be asked to redraft it, and narrow the scope.

He still stands by the fact that he does not believe "this lady (Stutzman) was supposed to be able to get sued" for refusing service to the men.

Brown says the bill is intended to allow tolerance of varying religious beliefs. But that just sounds like a license to discriminate, especially for some who would try to use the law to their advantage without fully embracing the beliefs they espouse.

The Legislature is going into a special session later this month because it couldn't pass a budget during the time allotted. Other bills will be considered as well, and this could be one of them. We hope that isn't the case.

Let the courts sort it out and let reason reign. Discrimination is not something our lawmakers should embrace, and this bill would do more harm than good. Instead why not focus on the state's finances?

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