PHOENIX – A Gilbert lawmaker called "a little bit disingenuous" a Tucson Democrat’s contention that she hid Bibles at the Arizona Capitol as a peaceful protest.
Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton 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 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 House Ethics Committee, said during Thursday's hearing the explanation about a protest 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?''
Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, one of three Republicans who filed the complaint with the committee, 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 said.
"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?''
Republicans on the House Ethics Committee sought to question Stahl Hamilton Thursday on her claim that her decision to hide Bibles amounted to a joke and a peaceful protest.
But she 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.
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.''
We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.