NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Following a national outcry, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer recently vetoed a bill that would have enabled businesses to refuse services to gay people for religious reasons. But some attendees at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference didn’t share her opposition to the measure.
A handful of the estimated 8,500 attendees over the weekend at the annual gathering for conservatives who spoke the Washington Blade either professed to have no knowledge of the legislation, SB 1062, or thought the religious liberties expansion under the legislation was misunderstood.
Ed Gillespie, a Republican political analyst who’s seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) in the upcoming mid-term election, was among those who said he had no knowledge of the bill when asked by the Blade whether Brewer should have vetoed it.
“I haven’t looked at that bill,” Gillespie said. “I’ve been very focused on the Senate race. I’m running for the United States Senate in Virginia, So, very focused on federal issues there, and I just don’t know enough about what was in that bill. I’m sorry.”
Despite opposition to the bill from Arizona businesses, both GOP U.S. senators from the state and even former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, some younger attendees at the conference who were familiar with the legislation said the bill was unfairly criticized and that outrage against the legislation was a product of the LGBT movement.
Matteo Moran, 20, a junior at Hillsdale College in Michigan, said he thinks Brewer “gave into” pressure of groups that said SB 1062 was an anti-gay bill, insisting the measure wasn’t directed at anybody.
“I think the reasoning behind her vetoing it was wrong,” Moran said. “I don’t think her veto was the wrong thing to do; I just think her rationale behind it was because it could be interpreted as being she gave into gay activist groups on that.”
Asked about gay non-discrimination laws, Moran said each business should “have a right to refuse service to anybody they deem is against whatever they believe.”
“Personally, I don’t think there should any discrimination laws, period,” Moran said. “I think people should have an equal choice, equal opportunity. That’s what I believe is everyone should have an equal opportunity to fight for the same jobs. Having legislation against or for one group or another is discriminatory in and of itself.”
Andrew Homer, 21, a graduate student at George Mason University, also said Brewer shouldn’t have vetoed the bill because he said it was only “a statement of religious right.”
“Just as people who are gay who own a business were turning away people who were against being gay, the same exact rights was what that bill was trying to instill,” Homer said. “You can try to turn away whomever you want to turn away, as long as it’s not discrimination on, you know, ‘I just don’t like you, go away.’ It’s their religious right.”
But Homer drew a distinction between discrimination against LGBT people that the legislation would have enabled and discrimination against categories of people protected under existing law.
“That’s not on a religious basis,” Homer said. “Gay people can claim that they have a religious basis, that they do not want to serve people who don’t support what they believe in. That’s fine. The same thing is for people who are not gay, who do not believe in gay rights, they should be allowed to have that exact same power.”
It’s true the legislation never explicitly mentions LGBT people, but most observers agreed its intent was clear — to enable businesses to refuse services to LGBT people, such as baking a cake or photographing a same-sex wedding.
These CPAC attendees are in the extreme minority in their views. According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 81 percent of Americans reject the idea of allowing businesses to discriminate against or to refuse services to LGBT people.
But they’re in line with the views of former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who told The National Review during an interview at CPAC he “absolutely” would have voted for the legislation and opposition to the bill was the result of “hysteria” created by the media.
“You talk about a complete mischaracterization of a bill,” Santorum said. “Actually, you could make the case this bill actually limited religious liberties because it actually added a section to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that actually required you to have legitimate religious objection. Before, you just said, ‘Well, it’s against my religion, or I have a religious objection. Here they actually put a standard here.”
Prior to his interview with the Review, the Blade attempted to ask Santorum in the halls of the Gaylord Convention Hall if Brewer should have vetoed the bill. He declined to answer and left quickly before this reporter could finish asking the question.
Ross Hemminger, co-director of GOProud and among the guests at CPAC, told the Blade he doesn’t think those expressing views supporting the Arizona bill were representative of conference attendees, saying observers shouldn’t assume they’re all bigoted.
“It’s a little bit disingenuous to paint CPAC as bigoted because a handful of attendees you spoke to said they supported the Arizona bill and thought it was mischaracterized,” Hemminger said. “We had multiple conversations with multiple people there who didn’t like the bill and were glad that it was vetoed, people who, quite frankly, didn’t support gay marriage, but don’t believe in being bigoted toward gay people.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), known for his libertarian mindset, won the CPAC presidential straw poll by a whopping 31 percent, beating Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who finished in second place, by double digits.
George Doll, 20, a sophomore at the University of South Dakota, offered a nuanced position on the bill, saying he had misgivings about requiring businesses to do things, but ultimately said Brewer “should have vetoed” the bill.
“I think it’s wrong that they’re doing it,” Doll said. “I don’t think it’s right to refuse service to people based on any sort of creed or religion or sexuality, but I guess if you own the place, you can do what you want.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a comment to Matteo Moran about the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The question asked was specifically about non-discrimination laws aimed at protecting gay people, not the 1964 Act. The Blade regrets the error.