ThinkProgress

Arizona’s new state House Speaker doesn’t believe LGBTQ people are equal under the law

Arizona state Rep. Russell "Rusty" Bowers on the House floor in May. CREDIT: Arizona Capitol Television screenshot.

Though the midterm blue wave in Arizona helped Democrats pick up a U.S. Senate seat, one U.S. House seat, three other statewide offices, and three seats in the House of Representatives, Republicans still held the slimmest possible majority in that body, holding 31 seats to the Democrats’ 29. Despite his decades-long record of opposing LGBTQ rights, Republicans selected Mesa state Rep. Russell “Rusty” Bowers (R) to be their new Speaker of the House.

Bowers is in his second stint in state government: he originally served in the state House from 1993 to 1997, then served in the state Senate from 1997 to 2001 (where he served as Majority Leader). After an unsuccessful 2010 Congressional campaign, he was elected to return to the state House in 2014. Over that time, one thing has been constant: he does not believe LGBTQ people deserve equal treatment under the law.

His bigotry was on display as early as his first term in the legislature. In 1994, angry that Phoenix passed a 1992 ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation for city employees and large city contractors, Bowers authored a proposed amendment to Arizona’s state constitution to prohibit localities from adopting gay rights laws. His reasoning: he believed homosexual behavior to be bad for society. “When a public entity endorses a behavior (through ordinances), it is very dangerous,” he said at the time. “It legitimizes it.”  Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Colorado ban as a clear violation of the constitution’s equal protection clause.

In 2000, Bowers was on the losing side of a 24-to-4 vote in the state Senate on a bill to ban insurance companies from discriminating against victims of domestic violence. His objection was based on an amendment that made clear that the state’s domestic violence laws equally applied to victims in same-gender relationships, which he feared would require the state to pay for domestic violence reconciliation and counseling for same-sex couples.

In 2001, Bowers helped to initially torpedo nondiscrimination protections for gay Arizonans who work for the state government, arguing that “Tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public choices, especially policy choices… Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.” Days later, when the senate reconsidered and passed the bill, he decried it as “an anarchy of values.” Such protections, he predicted, would “be extremely disruptive of employment in this state.”

Later that same year, Bowers also vociferously opposed a repeal of the state’s unconstitutional sodomy ban and laws that prohibited sex not intended to produce children. “We have a culture war here,” he proclaimed, terming the bill a “direct attack on the family.” “It’s because people don’t exercise more self-discipline that more laws are required,” he added.

Though times have changed and public opinion has enormously shifted in favor of recognizing basic rights for LGBTQ people, it does not appear that Bowers has evolved, even during his 13 years away from government.

He signed onto a 2018 amicus brief urging the state Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling that a business that makes wedding invitations must provide equal accommodations to same-sex couples under Phoenix’s public accommodation laws. The brief asks the state’s highest court to examine “whether public accommodation laws can force speakers to convey messages contrary to their faith” — a request the court granted last week.

And as he ran for re-election, he completed a candidate questionnaire for the notoriously anti-LGBTQ Center for Arizona Policy. Not only did he tell them that he opposes adding sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the state’s existing nondiscrimination law, he also vowed to support “[p]rotecting a parent’s right to seek professional counseling for their minor child with same-sex attraction or gender identity issues to help them reach their desired outcome,” endorsing the harmful and ineffective practice of forcing LGBTQ kids to endure conversion therapy. This scam practice is banned in 14 states and the District of Columbia because of the damage it can cause.

ThinkProgress reached out to Bowers to ask whether his view on any of these issues has changed; he did not respond.

While Bowers has apparently stood still, Arizona has made progress. The state just elected the first openly bisexual woman to be a United States Senator. The Republican mayor of Bowers’ hometown, Mesa, endorsed a proposed statewide employment nondiscrimination law for LGBTQ Arizonans last year, and the measure has bipartisan support in the legislature. And a poll in February by ONE Community found 77.8 percent of likely Arizona voters — and 62.3 person of self-identified conservatives — backed employment protections for gay and transgender people.