Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Bill Clinton is an extremist according to Kirsten Powers. That’s the gist of her latest USA Today op-ed, on Arizona’s attempt to protect religious liberty in the state with protections similar to the ones in the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that Clinton signed into law back in 1993. The column is wrongly titled “Arizona Latest to Attack Gay Rights,” even though the bill, SB1062, never mentions gays, lesbians, marriage, or same-sex anything. And Powers claims that the bill, if signed into law, “would result in nothing less than chaos,” even though the federal government has lived under these rules for twenty years, and Arizona has had similar protections since 1999. Indeed, more than a dozen states have similar laws and the sky hasn’t fallen. Yet Powers is resolute that SB1062 is an “abomination of a bill.”

>>> Check Out: Four Businesses Whose Owners Were Penalized for Their Religious Beliefs

As I explained yesterday at The Foundry, SB1062 is an amendment to the 1999 state RFRA clarifying that the protections extend to any “state action” and would apply to “any individual, association, partnership, corporation, church, religious assembly or institution or other business organization.” In other words, it protects all citizens and the associations they form from undue burdens by the government on their religious liberty or from private lawsuits that would have the same result.

Powers claims that the Arizona bill is the most extreme: “This proposed law makes the bill defeated in Kansas last week look progressive. Unlike the Kansas bill—which applied only to marriage—the Arizona bill has no such limits.” But a bi-partisan group of law professors begs to differ. In a letter sent yesterday to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, the professors write:

The bill has been egregiously misrepresented by many of its critics. …

We should not punish people for practicing their religions unless we have a very good reason. Arizona has had a RFRA for nearly fifteen years now; the federal government has had one since 1993; and RFRA’s standard was the constitutional standard for the entire country from 1963 to 1990. …

SB1062 would amend the Arizona RFRA to address two ambiguities that have been the subject of litigation under other RFRAs. It would provide that people are covered when state or local government requires them to violate their religion in the conduct of their business, and it would provide that people are covered when sued by a private citizen invoking state or local law to demand that they violate their religion.

The protections prevent the imposition of substantial burdens to sincere religious beliefs unless the government proves such a burden advances a compelling government interest that has been pursued through the least restrictive means possible. So claims that they provide blanket protections against serving gays and lesbians are simply nonsensical. The Arizona law, among other things, protects citizens concerned with being coerced into celebrating a same-sex “wedding” or being coerced into treating a same-sex relationship as a marriage.

Many religions teach that marriage is the union of a man and woman, and the religious liberty concern is in being coerced into violating that belief. While Americans should be free to live and love as they choose, no one should demand that government coerce others into celebrating their relationships.

Not every florist need provide wedding arrangements for every ceremony. Not every photographer need capture every first kiss. Competitive markets can best harmonize a range of values that citizens hold. And there is no need for government to try to force every photographer and every florist to service every marriage-related event.

Indeed, the Arizona law would also protect groups like Hobby Lobby from a state-level HHS mandate coercing them to provide insurance coverage that violates their religious convictions.  The crucial question here is not whether you yourself would or wouldn’t pay for abortion-inducing drugs and contraception, but whether government should force the Little Sisters of the Poor to do so.

What’s the compelling government interest being served by the mandate? Is requiring nuns to provide coverage of abortion-inducing drugs and contraception the least restrictive way to accomplish that interest?

Powers concludes her article with a hypothetical: “Moreover, one wonders how Christians will feel when this law is used against them. …. What’s to say that a Christian restaurant owner won’t tell the Christian baker who refuses service to gays to leave his establishment?”

But when A&E exercised their freedom of contract and freedom of association rights by suspending Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty for making comments that the A&E executives disapproved of, no one suggested the government should coerce A&E into employing the duck caller. No, we were explicit in defending A&E’s rights to suspend him—even if we thought it was the wrong thing to do.

In truth one needn’t be against contraception to think the government shouldn’t coerce nuns to provide it. Likewise, one needn’t be against baking wedding cakes for same-sex couples to think the government shouldn’t be able to force evangelicals to do so. Nor need one be against Biblical morality to think that A&E can suspend Phil Robertson.

That’s the thing about living in a free society. People can run their businesses in accord with their own values. Government shouldn’t coerce them into accepting the beliefs of pundits.