Dem lawmaker faces formal reprimand for hiding Bibles as part of protest
A Democratic lawmaker videotaped hiding two Bibles for what she called a lighthearted protest of the state legislature’s violation of church and state is facing a formal censure from Republican colleagues.
In April, Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, was caught on video moving Bibles in the member’s lounge of the state House of Representatives, after GOP leadership ordered the installation of a camera following weeks of confusion over the often displaced texts.
They were once discovered underneath the seat cushions of couches in the lounge, and another time, one was found inside a refrigerator. Stahl Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister, explained that her actions were meant both as a joke and a protest of what she viewed as a violation of church and state.
But Republican lawmakers were outraged and filed an ethics complaint, calling for her to be punished for disorderly conduct, theft and creating a hostile work environment. In the complaint, a trio of GOP lawmakers, including two pastors, accused Stahl Hamilton of exhibiting a “flagrant disrespect” for their religious beliefs and those of all Arizonans.
On Thursday, formal proceedings in the investigation against Stahl Hamilton began, during which Republican legislators hotly criticized her for what they viewed as discriminatory actions and dismissed her claims of protest as nonsensical. Stahl Hamilton didn’t show up to the committee meeting, and chose instead to be represented by her lawyers.
Questions about the motivation behind installing a video camera in the member’s lounge and the majority party’s unwillingness to release the full video were sharply rebuffed by committee leadership.
“Was there a discussion, like, ‘We’re going to figure out who did this and fire them?’” Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, asked a member of Capitol security, before being cut off by Chairman Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, who said her questioning was irrelevant.
Stahl Hamilton filed the ethics complaint earlier this year against GOP Rep. Liz Harris, which eventually led to her expulsion for allowing the dissemination of false criminal allegations against a bevy of state officials at a legislative hearing and then lying about it.
Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, one of the lawmakers who filed the complaint against Stahl Hamilton, worried that he may have inadvertently been forced to disrespect his own beliefs.
“I sit in those chairs, so now I have to deal with the question: At some point while these Bibles were missing, was I sitting on my own sacred text?” he asked. “I feel that it’s inappropriate for any member to do that to other members. It’s a desecration of their scripture and a disrespect for their beliefs.”
But Stahl Hamilton’s lawyers, former Democratic lawmakers Domingo DeGrazia and Diego Rodriguez, rebutted that her career as a pastor and her previous explanation of her actions refuted claims that she intended to disrespect anyone’s religious convictions.
In an emailed statement to the committee that she also read during a full meeting of the House earlier this year, Stahl Hamilton said that her goal was “never to be destructive, to never desecrate or to offend,” but rather to begin a conversation about the separation of church and state doctrine.
“She has the utmost respect for the process and for other members of this body. However, she also has the utmost respect for her First Amendment right to engage in peaceful protest,” Rodriguez said. “We would further offer that — and she has mentioned it before — it was a prank, it was a joke, it was done in jest.”
But Republicans on the panel were unconvinced. Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, questioned how just the presence of a book constituted a violation of the separation of church and state doctrine.
“How is having a Bible sitting on a table somehow a violation of church and state?” he asked. “Did she feel like she was being coerced to follow a certain religion?”
DeGrazia and Rodriguez refused to elaborate on Stahl Hamilton’s motivations, instead repeatedly pointing to her written statement in the face of continued grilling from lawmakers. Grantham quickly became frustrated with the stalemate, and compared Stahl Hamilton’s behavior with that of past lawmakers expelled from the legislature, saying that the committee has a responsibility to investigate.
“What we judge here as members of the House is ethical versus unethical behavior. We’ve expelled members, regardless of party line, for engaging in pretty ridiculous behavior. It happened this year, it happened (five) years ago,” Grantham said, referencing the expulsion of then-Republican Rep. Don Shooter for sexual misconduct in 2018. “I’m trying to figure out what we’re doing here, because it’s not seemingly normal behavior.”
Rodriguez shot back that, while Grantham and other lawmakers may disapprove of Stahl Hamilton’s protest or be unsatisfied with her explanation, her actions are not comparable to Shooter’s, and don’t amount to an ethics violation.
“What today boils down to is that certain folks are just not comfortable with the way certain things happened, and subsequent to that, they’re not comfortable with the way things were explained, and that is unfortunately just a part of life,” Rodriguez said. “But it doesn’t rise to the level of something that clearly insults the dignity of the body and that clearly offends people, and that clearly — when people of good conscience are presented with something — is a violation.”
Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, remained skeptical, pointing out what she perceived as a double standard for religious beliefs.
“What if she did this to the Quran?” she asked. “What would the response be?”
There are no copies of the Quran in the members’ lounge of the House, nor any other religious texts besides Bibles.
A final decision from the Ethics Committee, which will recommend what action, if any, the legislative body as a whole should take isn’t expected until June 12, when the legislature reconvenes after its latest recess.
The committee can recommend to censure or expel Stahl Hamilton, but the latter outcome is highly unlikely without Democrats on board to make up the two-thirds supermajority vote needed to do so. Censure, meanwhile, requires only a simple majority, and Republicans currently outnumber Democrats by one.
***CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton claimed her protest was against separation of powers; she said her protest was about perceived violations of the separation of church and state.