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Arizona Republicans question colleague who hid Bibles

 Members of the Arizona House Ethics Committee review the video of Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton moving and hiding Bibles in April that had been in the House members' lounge
Howard Fischer/CMS
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Members of the Arizona House Ethics Committee review the video of Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton moving and hiding Bibles in April that had been in the House members' lounge

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Republicans on the House Ethics Committee sought to question a Tucson Democrat Thursday on her claim that her decision to hide Bibles amounted to a joke and a peaceful protest.
But Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton wasn't there, having made what she told Capitol Media Services was a decision not to attend on "the advice of my excellent lawyers.''
And that left the members of the GOP-dominated panel frustrated as they decide whether to recommend some punishment for her.
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, who chairs the panel, acknowledged she was under no obligation to appear personally. And he said he won't hold that against her when recommending what punishment, if any, is appropriate.
"But I think it would have been more effective for her if she was here to give some light to some of our questions that were directed directly at her,'' Chaplik told Capitol Media Services after the hearing.
He said a final decision will come after lawmakers consult with attorneys to determine if her actions rise to the level of violating House ethics rules on the conduct of members, with a target of June 12 to make a recommendation to the full House.
Stahl Hamilton already has publicly stated she was trying to make a "playful'' point about the separation of church and state when she moved the Bibles that normally are in the members' lounge, putting them at various times underneath the cushions of chairs and, at one point, in a refrigerator. And she said she was trying to start a "conversation'' about the issue, though she conceded that actually should have started with talking to someone and not hiding the books.
But Rep. Travis Grantham, R-Gilbert, one of three Republicans on the five-member panel, said during Thursday's hearing that explanation about a protest about doesn't ring true.
"I find it a little bit disingenuous,'' he said.
"How is having a Bible sitting on a table somehow a violation of church and state?'' Grantham asked. "Did she feel like she was being coerced to follow a certain religion?''
With his client not there, Diego Rodriguez, a former state lawmaker and one of her attorneys, responded that his role was not to tell committee members what his client thought at the time or what was her motivation. Instead, he referred lawmakers to her statement in response to the complaint that "it was a form of peaceful protest.''
Chaplik said the lawyers representing Stahl Hamilton during Thursday's hearing "did a fine job'' but their presence did not substitute for committee members being able to hear directly from her.
"They can't answer for her on any questions that were directed to her on her beliefs or her actions or any knowledge that she may have,'' he said. "That would have been nice to have those answers today.''
But the relevance of some of what GOP lawmakers wanted to ask her is less than clear.
Grantham, for example, wanted to know whether Stahl Hamilton ever has stolen anything, convicted of theft or shoplifting. He said that information would help him decide the underlying question of whether she is guilty of the ethics charge again her of "disorderly behavior,'' saying he wanted to know "if there's a pattern of it or is this something new.''
The heart of the charge against her is that her actions in hiding away the Bibles violated House rules on the conduct of lawmakers.
Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, one of three Republicans who filed the complaint, acknowledged he did not witness Stahl Hamilton's actions in hiding the Bibles that are in the members' lounge, the last of three incidents caught April 10 on a hidden camera set up by House staff.
But he said Thursday he was still offended after the videotape became public and the issue gained national attention. And Heap said he believes some action against Stahl Hamilton is appropriate.
"What was particularly disturbing to me is not simply that these Bibles were removed but the photos of where these Bibles were placed, in a refrigerator and under the cushions of chairs where I and other members and lobbyists sit,'' he told the Ethics Committee.
"I sit in those chairs,'' Heap continued. "So now I have to deal with the question of, at some point while these Bibles were missing, was I sitting on my own sacred text?''
Rep. Jennifer Longdon of Phoenix, one of the two Democrats on the panel, pointed out to Heap that Stahl Hamilton publicy apologized and asked him if he accepted that.
"I do appreciate her apology but it can't be escaped that apology came only after the actions had been known, she was informed this had been caught on video and that this became an issue of national concern,'' Heap said.
"So that does put a shadow over the sincerity of the apology though if she is sincere I accept it,'' he continued. "But I think that question is irrelevant to the question of was her behavior appropriate.''
Grantham also raised questions about what he said, using air quotes, was her "apology.''
"She didn't apologize for the action,'' he said. "She apologized for the offense of anyone who thought that action was inappropriate.''
Rodriguez said Stahl Hamilton meant no disrespect to the House.
"However, she also has the utmost respect for her First Amendment rights to engage in peaceful protest,'' he said. "And we would describe what she did as a peaceful protest.''
Beyond that, Rodriguez said Stahl Hamilton has described her actions as "a prank, a joke, it was done in jest.''
At the end of the hearing, however, Rep. Gail Griffin of Hereford, the third Republican on the panel, said she was not buying that argument.
"I don't see this as a joke, I don't see this as funny,'' she said. And Griffin also said that Stahl Hamilton's apology came up short.
"She didn't apologize for removing the Bible,'' Griffin said of Stahl Hamilton who is an ordained Presbyterian minister. "I don't understand why she's so angry about a holy book.''
Republicans also sought to undermine Stahl Hamilton's arguments about her desire for a separation of church and state.
They played a video of a 2021 floor speech she made on Maundy Thursday, the day of the Last Supper She sought to make a point about attitudes about immigration and foreigners, saying people should "see in them the face of Christ.''
In making her apology last month, Stahl Hamilton said she holds scripture "very near to my heart.''
"It is what guides me,'' she said. "It is what shapes and informs the decisions I make.''
Stahl Hamilton 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,'' she said.
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On Twitter: @azcapmedia