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An Arizona lawmaker was right to move Bibles from a State House lounge
Republicans are feigning outrage after Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton was caught moving the bibles. She was right to do it.
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In a story that’s being treated as some kind of scandal, Republicans in Arizona are lashing out at a Democratic lawmaker who moved bibles from the State House's “members-only” lounge last month.
Here’s the way FOX’s propaganda team framed it:
The Arizona House of Representatives was alerted about the mysterious disappearance of a pair of Holy Bibles on March 23, which are normally left on display in the House’s members-only lounge, according to a statehouse source.
After being alerted to the Bible disappearances, gumshoes with the House security team started searching the lounge for the Bibles and found they had been placed underneath cushions of two chairs.
Nearly a week later, another Bible went missing from the lounge and was later discovered to have been moved and placed inside a refrigerator in a nearby kitchen.
Truly Watergate-level tactics here...
As the story goes, when the bibles went missing, security cameras were placed inside the lounge. On April 10, they caught Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton moving more bibles around. Not stealing them. Not throwing them in the trash. Just moving them around.
At no point was the more pressing question ever raised: Why the hell were bibles in the House lounge anyway? It’s not a lawmaker’s personal office; it’s a communal gathering place inside a government facility.
Even if you think moving the bibles is a petty move, it’s a far bigger problem that Christian legislators felt like they could leave the religious books inside the lounge in the first place. You would never see copies of the Qur’an in the lounge because they don’t belong there, but Christian Nationalists don’t believe they should be held to the same standards. (Also, who has the kind of time to read the Bible in a government lounge?! Who is strolling through the lounge during a break and picking up the Bible for some light reading?)
Stahl Hamilton, by the way, isn’t some atheist activist here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). She’s an ordained Presbyterian minister who currently serves at a parish, got her Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and believes church and state ought to remain separate. An enemy of religion, she is not.
And yet reporter David Caltabiano acted like she committed a grave scandal to the point that he tried to ambush her as she was walking through the Capitol. She didn’t want to speak with him—understandably so—but she also didn’t need to defend her actions so there was nothing to speak about.
Despite that, she sent a brief statement to him later, saying, “Just a little playful commentary on the separation of church and state.” (I would preferred a more direct, “The books don’t belong there, so I was cleaning up,” but that’s why I’m not in elected office.) On Wednesday, Stahl Hamilton apologized on the House floor: “I realize my actions could be seen as something less than playful.”
She did not respond to my request for comment. [***SEE UPDATE BELOW***]
A number of Republicans in the legislature are now taking victory laps and calling for Stahl Hamilton’s expulsion, in part because, before this incident, she filed ethics charges against GOP Rep. Liz Harris for inviting a conspiracy theorist and election denier to testify before (and spread lies about) lawmakers. It was hardly a frivolous motion. Several Republicans joined with Democrats to expel Harris from office. Despite that, some GOP representatives are using this Bible “controversy” as an act of revenge:
Republican Pro-Tempore Speaker Travis Grantham (who also voted to expel Harris) reacted to the camera footage by pretending to be offended and treating Stahl Hamilton as a villain:
“When I’m watching that, I’m thinking, ‘Well, this is obviously someone who’s got some purpose and some intent, and they know they’re doing something bad,” said Grantham.
“… the state motto is God enriches. I don’t quite understand the issue of having a Bible available for members to read,” he said.
The Bibles aren’t there so members can read it during their down time. If that were true, they could leave the books in their office or pull up the text on their phones. The lounge is meant for socializing, anyway. The Bibles are in the lounge to make a point about which religion matters to the Republicans in power.
If they wanted reading material, they could stock up on magazines and newspapers and the sort of content that would educate their members on the very issues they’ll be voting on. But Grantham apparently thinks they should be learning about faith-based genocide and sexual assault and everything else in the Christian holy book.
Kudos to Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts for pointing out the fact that, for all this debate, there’s no indication Republicans have even bothered reading the book:
I look at some of the things happening in the Legislature this year—the demonization of immigrants in search of asylum, the targeting of the LGBTQ community and in particular, transgender children who already are at such high risk of suicide. The daily sneers at those with whom our leaders have political disagreements.
But then, perhaps some of them haven’t gotten to the part in the Scriptures about loving thy neighbor or doing [unto] others…
If Arizona Republicans are hell-bent on keeping the Bibles in the lounge, the least they could do is distance themselves from the cruel legislation they’re attempting to pass since the two things aren’t theoretically compatible. But these are Christian Nationalists. They’re eager to link bigotry to their holy book.
I would say that’s not a wise move on their part, but instead, I suppose I should thank them for doing my job for me.
***Update*** (Friday, 4/28): Earlier today, I spoke with Rep. Stahl Hamilton about this incident.
She told me the most pressing concern for her were social media attacks against her children made by people who had seen the story in right-wing outlets. She acknowledged that there may have been “better ways to start a conversation” than moving the bibles in the lounge, but she doesn’t have any intention of backing away from her longtime support of church/state separation. Making the point that Christian Nationalism has no place in government is “gonna cause a firestorm” no matter what, she told me, but it’s too important to let slide.
Her apology on the House floor, she said, was “heartfelt” and sincere. Her only regret is that she didn’t ask for the forgiveness of her colleagues. She doesn’t apologize, however, for creating space for Arizonans with and without religious faith.
She also noted that the invasion of privacy through the hidden cameras in the lounge were far more of a threat to individual freedoms than her actions. It’s possible other news organizations could make public records requests to see the entirety of the footage, which could be interesting given that lobbyists often meet with representatives in that space. (It’s not clear if audio was recorded.)
Given the GOP’s frustration about the ethics complaint against former Rep. Liz Harris, Stahl Hamilton thinks the backlash against her "will go on for a little while,” but hopefully, reasonable people will see that this controversy is overblown. It’s a ploy to distract people from the very real issues—like abortion rights and civil liberties—that Republicans are fighting against. It’s much easier for them to treat the other side as the enemy than openly defend their bad policies.
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