Arizona lawmaker apologizes about hiding bibles
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- A Tucson lawmaker apologized Wednesday to House colleagues for moving and hiding copies of the Bible in the members' lounge, saying she was trying to make a "playful'' point about the separation of church and state.
But the move by Democratic Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, coming after her actions became public because of a hidden security camera, may not end the controversy. Conservative activist Merissa Hamilton filed a request asking that lawmakers investigate the lawmaker for violating House ethics rules against disorderly conduct.
House Speaker Ben Toma told Capitol Media Services he has no plans to pursue a complaint.
But the Peoria Republican said that what she did does fall into the category of disorderly conduct. And he said it will be up to other lawmakers to decide whether to seek action against her.
The issue arose when some members noticed last month that the two Bibles, which are placed on tables in the lounge just outside the House chambers, were missing. A search by security staff turned them up -- underneath the cushions of chairs.
Another incident about a week later found the Bible in a refrigerator in the lounge.
Toma then authorized the placement of a hidden camera. And that resulted in an April 10 video of Stahl Hamilton moving the books.
It was only after that video went public after being aired Tuesday by a Phoenix TV station that she first explained her actions briefly to Capitol Media Services, calling it "just a little playful commentary on the separation of church and state.''
"I am a Presbyterian minister so I obviously don't have a problem with the Bible,'' she added.
On Wednesday, though Rep. Lupe Diaz, R-Benson, a pastor of Grace Chapel, opened the session with a 2 1/2 minute commentary on the Bible, calling it "God's love letter to humanity.''
"Over the millennia, tyrants have tried to eliminate it, burn it, bury it, hide it and keep it from people because it has the power to transform,'' he said. That was followed by the customary daily prayer.
"I stand here today wanting to acknowledge the offense I committed by my actions of hiding Bibles in the members' lounge,'' Stahl Hamilton told colleagues. "The intent was never to be destructive, to never desecrate or to offend.''
And she said that her actions in hiding the books from being easily found were not the best way to raise the issue of Bibles in the House lounge so members could consult them as desired.
"I acknowledge that a conversation about the separation of church and state should have began with a conversation,'' Stahl Hamilton said.
The lawmaker, who has a Masters of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, said she holds scripture "very near to my heart.''
"It is what guides me,'' Stahl Hamilton said. "It is what shapes and informs the decisions I make.''
She said she has the "utmost respect'' for people of all faiths and for those who have no religious beliefs.
"And because of that respect, I recognize my actions could have been seen as something less than playful and offensive,'' Stahl Hamilton said.
Toma, for his part, said her actions cross the line of what is acceptable conduct.
"Removing any item from the House is an ethical violation without permission,'' he said.
And what of the fact she didn't actually remove it from the House -- or even the lounge?
"Do you think it's OK to take a Bible, stick it under a couch or stick it under a refrigerator?'' Toma responded. "It's kind of a common-sense question.''
If nothing else, he said, it's "inappropriate.''
The speaker said he can't say if there will be a formal ethics complaint.
"I think now that it's public, our members know, each member is free to do whatever they're going to do,'' he said. "I'm assuming some of them may be interested in doing exactly what you just said.''
Any complaint against her, particularly coming from the more conservative members of the House, could be considered a bit of payback.
It was Stahl Hamilton who filed the complaint against Liz Harris, accusing her of disorderly conduct for allowing and even encouraging testimony by a known election denier during a hearing in February. That testimony included charges that the governor, judges, state officials and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were all involved in criminal conspiracies including drug smuggling and money laundering.
Harris eventually was found to have violated House ethics rules and expelled on a 46-13 vote.
In her letter hand-delivered Wednesday, Hamilton, a political ally of Harris, asked that a formal complaint be filed against Stahl Hamilton for violating prohibitions in House rules against disorderly conduct. The letter went directly to Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, who is Hamilton's state representative, with copies to other House Republican and Democratic leaders.
Hamilton cited state constitutional provisions about religious toleration and the state not interfering with the rights of others.
"Not only did Rep. Stahl Hamilton intentionally prohibit religious practice by her colleagues during the most critical moments of needed guidance, but she disrupted the peace, morality and good order of the body to the extent security cameras needed to be purchased and installed,'' Hamilton wrote. "She did so not as a joke, but because she holds deeply ingrained bigotry against her Christian colleagues that utilize the Bible in service to our state,'' saying that is "shown by her Twitter history.''
So far the actions of colleagues appear to be limited to their own comments.
"Dems wanted to claim a moral high ground with an ethics complaint against Liz Harris and now they are literally stealing Bibles the next week?'' Rep. Cory McGarr, R-Marana, wrote on his Twitter account.
And in his own Twitter post, Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa called Stahl Hamilton "an ordained 'minister' who hates Bibles'' because she was hiding them.
"If only the Bible had something to say about stealing...'' he wrote.
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