Ronald Reagan Would Have Opposed Arizona’s Anti-gay Bill

Jan Brewer
Reagan was no civil right activist when it came to gay rights, but he would have nixed a measure allowing discrimination against homosexuals on religious grounds Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Update: Jan Brewer said Wednseday evening that she has vetoed SB 1062, a bill that would have given Arizona businesses the right to assert their religious beliefs to deny service to gay and lesbian customers. 

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has to decide whether to sign or veto a bill that allows people to invoke religious freedom to refuse doing business with gays. Every indication, though, is she will veto it.

In that she’ll be following a precedent laid down by Ronald Reagan. In 1978, four years after he was reelected to the California governorship and two years after he nearly defeated President Gerald Ford for the Republican presidential nomination, Reagan faced a choice confronting all Californians.

Conservatives had begun to rally around a ballot proposition that would ban homosexuals from working in the state’s public schools. The gay activist and San Francisco council member Harvey Milk and the nascent gay liberation movement fought the measure as did most Democratic lawmakers.

Reagan, who had already established himself as the darling of conservatives since helping Barry Goldwater’s failed presidential campaign in 1964, also weighed in against the measure -- a move that many gay activists, including David Mixner, a strong supporter of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, acknowledge was pivotal. Milk himself was appreciative of the help Reagan’s opposition gave to his cause and the eponymous film of his life, starring Sean Penn as Milk, notes Reagan’s opposition to the referendum.

Despite the nostalgic praise, it was a somewhat risky move for Reagan as he readied to run for president in 1980, a race in which he was the frontrunner but by no means certain to secure the nomination. Still, he took a firm stance in a newspaper editorial just a week before the election arguing against the propositions: “Whatever else it is, homosexuality is not a contagious disease like the measles. Prevailing scientific opinion is that an individual's sexuality is determined at a very early age and that a child's teachers do not really influence this.”

Reagan was no civil right activist when it came to gay rights, of course. He never supported non-discrimination legislation to protect gays and he was roundly chided for the federal government’s reaction to the AIDS crisis.

Still, Reagan knew that this proposition, which was soundly defeated, represented quack science and government overreach that could launch a slew of likely unintended consequences. (The ballot measures could have been interpreted to ban schools from employing not only homosexuals but those who believed gays should be allowed to teach.)

Brewer’s situation is different and it comes during a time when gay rights seem to be on the march. But it’s similar in that she’s facing a slapdash bill and must accommodate business interests who have no interest in this kind of legislation. (Businesses largely stayed out of the California measure.)

In Arizona, it’s been widely noted that companies ranging from Delta to Verizon oppose the bill and the Arizona Super Bowl Committee, scheduled to host next year’s big game, is desperate that the bill is thrown out. These powerful commercial interests have made it clear that part of the reason they oppose the measure is that they disdain the discriminatory nature of the legislation.

Left unsaid is their fear of the chaos a bill like this could cause. Want to recruit an executive to your office in Phoenix? Good luck with that. A contractor discovers at the last minute that you employ gay couples? That’s a mess. Can a hotelier deny service to a gay Super Bowl fan?

This leaves aside how those choosing to exercise this exemption are going to determine who is or isn’t in a gay marriage. (It’s obvious in the oft cited case of a baker refusing to provide a cake to a wedding. But if you’re hiring a plumber, how do you know? And how are you allowed to find out?)

How do you decide who has a bona fide religious objection? How does all of this jibe with federal contracting policies? And, to make matters murkier, the law could allow discrimination against Muslims, Jews or even Christians.

Similar what-the-hell fears plagued the 1978 proposition. Would there be a witch-hunt to determine who is gay? And the measure is unnecessary. If the concern of those who brought the measure is about teachers acting sexually towards children, there were myriad statutes for dealing with that already.

It’s possible Brewer will sign the bill even if the state’s U.S. Senators oppose it and some of the Republican legislators who backed the measure have already renounced their support.

More likely, she’s not going to antagonize the business community by appending her signature to a measure that would be difficult to enforce and could well be struck down in state and/or federal courts.

What politician would want to risk that? Not Reagan.

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