Guise of religion to promote discrimination

When my Japanese mother and white, American-born father fell in love in Yokohama, Japan in 1966, their interracial relationship would have been met with horror by many stateside. Indeed, a marriage between the two would have been illegal in many parts of the United States. When my father, a U.S. Marine, eventually sought leave to wed, the Marine Corps refused because his fiancée was Japanese. It was only after the legendary N.Y. Sen. Jacob Javits ((R) intervened that the Marine Corps relented. 

Gov. Jan Brewer (R-Ariz.) made national headlines when she vetoed state Senate Bill 1062, which would have enabled Arizona businesses to deny services to individuals by asserting a “sincerely held religious belief” in opposition. Unfortunately, we have seen religion used to justify discrimination before. The Curse of Ham was used to justify slavery, and God’s creation of separate races in separate lands was used to justify segregation and bans on interracial marriage. For example, in 1955 the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed that the marriage of a Chinese man and white woman was void because “the natural law which forbids their intermarriage and the social amalgamation which leads to the corruption of races is as clearly divine as that which imparted to them different natures.” 

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Supporters of SB 1062 were targeting LGBT people and cities like Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff that dared to include sexual orientation in non-discrimination ordinances. This use of religion to justify discrimination against LGBT people – in the same way it was used to justify discrimination against my parents –offended me personally and as president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA). Alarmingly, legislators in Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Idaho have proposed similar legislation. Because of the fundamental issues of justice and civil rights involved, we wrote to Gov. Brewer and let her know that if she did not veto the bill, we would consider moving our 2014 annual convention, anticipated to bring over 1,500 lawyers to Phoenix/Scottsdale, to another state. We did not make this threat lightly, knowing that doing so would cause us to incur over a half million dollar penalty for breaking our hotel contract. But the hatefulness of this legislation left us no choice.  

As a group, APAs have a particular perspective on laws targeting LGBT people because of our own history. In addition to past anti-miscegenation and anti-Asian immigration laws, specific APA ethnic groups have faced targeted discrimination because of their identity. Notably, the Japanese American community was subject to internment during World War II, and more recently, the South Asian American community has faced racial profiling since September 11th. Given these experiences, and the fact that approximately 38,000 APAs are part of a same-sex couple, and nearly 40 percent of such couples are raising children, it was a matter of conscience to oppose this bill. 

Thankfully, Gov. Brewer vetoed SB 1062. I applaud her for doing so, but many suspect her decision may have been driven by fear of the bill’s economic ramifications rather than a concern for civil rights. For now, our convention remains in Arizona. But I and many others are disheartened that the state’s political climate supports a legislature that would pass SB 1062. So for me, and for NAPABA, this matter is not over. We are already looking for ways that we can support inclusive cities like Phoenix, and the many individuals, organizations, and businesses in Arizona that opposed SB 1062 and similar initiatives. We will coordinate our efforts with local activists and advocacy groups, and will share best practices and strategies, to continue the fight against discrimination on the ground.  We will stand with them in meetings with Arizona legislators and leaders so that Gov. Brewer and all of Arizona see that their legislature’s actions are not so easily overlooked or forgiven. 

I urge any legislator seeking to push a similar bill in their state to consider how far the nation’s opinion of Arizona has fallen. Despite the good and just people who live there, Arizona has become a cautionary tale because of its extremist legislature. NAPABA, and many others across the nation, will be watching, and will not let the guise of religion be used as an excuse for discrimination-- not again.

Simonitsch is president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the national association of Asian Pacific American attorneys, judges, law professors, and law students. NAPABA represents the interests of over 40,000 attorneys and more than 65 national, state and local Asian Pacific American bar associations. He is also an attorney in Miami, Florida who represents businesses in commercial and insolvency-related disputes nationwide.

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