What’s the matter with Arizona?

For the second time in recent years, there’s a potential conflict between the playing of a major sporting event in Arizona and a controversial law. In 2010, Arizona passed into law SB 1070, the bill commonly known as the “show-your-papers” law which expanded the ambit of Arizona authorities to pursue undocumented immigrants. Or as many of its critics have argued, made it easier for law enforcement to engage in ethnically based profiling. Major League Baseball was scheduled to hold its 2011 all-star game in Arizona. There were significant calls for Commissioner Bud Selig move the game in protest of the law, especially given the composition of major league rosters, heavily populated by immigrants from Spanish speaking countries. Ultimately,Selig chose not to move the game.

The 2015 Super Bowl is slated to be played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona (site of one of the very greatest nights of my life as a sports fan). Determined not to let a major sporting event approach in relatively quietude, the Arizona state legislature has passed a bill that is now headed for Jan Brewer’s desk. That bill, SB 1062, would allow business owners who cite a “sincerely held” religious belief to deny service to gays. Its supporters insist that the bill is not targeted at that population – that the bill’s intent is simply to preserve “religious freedom.” (a Kansas law that, for now, has stalled in the state legislature there specified a right to discriminate against gays. The Arizona law does not name any one group, though its intent is clear). As Paul Waldman explained yesterday, the religious right has concocted an awfully promiscuous definition of religious freedom, one that allows for:

a much broader conception of religious freedom, one that extends beyond religious practice to virtually anything a religious person does. But it’s when you take your religious practices outside of your own faith, your own beliefs, and your own practice and start applying them to other people that you lose the special privileges that religion is accorded. As an old saying has it, my right to swing my fist ends precisely where your nose begins.

Any Christians who want to can believe that gay people are sinful and wicked, or that gay marriage is a terrible thing. What they can’t do is use those beliefs as a get-out-of-jail-free card that gives them permission to break the law or escape civil liability when they harm other people.

As Governor Brewer contemplates signing the law, the NFL has made clear that it is monitoring the situation. League spokesman Greg Aiello noted that league policies “emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.”

The timing of this legislation, for those who would want to keep the Super Bowl in Arizona – and this presumably includes Governor Brewer – is particularly bad. Professional sports leagues in the United States, including the NFL, have increasingly affirmed their support of diversity, including sexuality.  And keep in mind that the commissioner has a gay brother, which has made the stakes in this issue personal for Roger Goodell, which was especially clear in the aftermath of Michael Sam’s decision to announce publicly his sexual identity. The balance of forces from a business perspective – including big-time sports – are clearly tipping toward embrace of sexuality-based differences.

I don’t, in general, have a high opinion of the Governor, to put it charitably. But she did demonstrate a pragmatic streak when she decided to accept Medicaid expansion in Arizona, bucking the ferocious opposition of her political base. And if I had to guess, I think she will veto this particularly noxious bill. The damage it could do to the state, including its clearly uneasy businesses community, is too great.  Mark Joseph Stern recounts in Slate that we’ve been down this road before. When Arizona refused to adopt a Martin Luther King holiday (it was the last state in the union to eventually approve the holiday), Commissioner Paul Tagliabue relocated the 1993 Super Bowl to Pasadena.

And the NFL’s power and prestige is, if anything, greater now than it was twenty years ago. Now might not be the best time to test its position on this question.

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