Democrat who hid Bibles in House members' lounge hit with ethics complaint

By Ben Giles, Mark Brodie
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, May 2, 2023 - 12:38pm
Updated: Thursday, May 4, 2023 - 1:40pm

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Arizona state Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton apologizes for hiding bibles
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton apologizes to House colleagues on April 26, 2023, for moving around and hiding the Bibles in the members’ lounge.

Three first-term Republican lawmakers filed a complaint Monday accusing Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton of violating House ethics rules with her admitted action of hiding Bibles.

The complaint says that the Tucson Democrat, on her own, moved Bibles and placed them under seat cushions in the House lounge, “potentially causing Christian members of the House, staff, and guest to unknowingly sit on their own holy text.” And the GOP lawmakers said her placement of one in a refrigerator is “disrespectful in the extreme.”

Stahl Hamilton publicly apologized, saying her actions were meant to make a “playful” point about the separation of church and state.

But Reps. Justin Heap of Mesa, David Marshall of Snowflake and Lupe Diaz of Benson said her statements “did not provide sufficient justification or excuse for her conduct.” Nor were they swayed by that explanation.

“These public comments came only after the representative was aware that her actions had been caught on camera and the incident became a matter of national concern,” they wrote.

“Had a camera not been installed, these deeply inappropriate actions could have continued indefinitely to the detriment of other members,” they continued. “The people of Arizona deserve a higher standard of decorum and respect from their elected representatives.”

So they want the Ethics Committee to investigate her actions.

Stahl Hamilton said Monday evening she was aware of the complaint and had no immediate comment.

Any lawmaker can file an ethics complaint. But any move to proceed against that legislator with any sanction — which can range from censure through expulsion — requires not only that the Ethics Committee pursue the complaint but a finding by the House that there was a violation of the rules.

In this case, the three lawmakers say that there are several ways Stahl Hamilton broke the rules.

The first fits under a section of the Arizona Constitution to allow lawmakers to punish members for “disorderly behavior.”

They acknowledge there is no actual Arizona case defining what that means. Instead, they cite a 1910 edition of Black’s Law Dictionary — printed around the same time as the 1912 Arizona Constitution — which says it can include conduct contrary to rules of good order and decorum, contrary to law or “scandalizes the community and is offensive to the public sense of morality.”

“Rep. Stahl Hamilton’s conduct was all three of these things,” the three GOP lawmakers wrote.

On a more concrete note, they contend that her action constitutes theft under state law based on the definition that includes controlling the property of another “with the intent to deprive the other person of such property.” And here, they said that “other person” can include the Arizona House.

“It is unnecessary for the Ethics Committee to make a determination as to whether Rep. Stahl Hamilton intended to permanently or only temporarily deprive the House and fellow members of the use of the property to determine if her actions constitute a theft,” they said.

They said the only reason the Bibles were found after multiple incidents of hiding was they were located by other members.

“If the Bibles hadn’t been located, Rep. Stahl Hamilton would likely have been pleased,” they wrote. “The repetition of the theft after the Bibles were replaced further supports that assumption.”

Finally, they said the removal of the Bibles violates state and federal laws prohibit religious harassment in the workplace, saying Stahl Hamilton’s actions created a “hostile work environment.”

“By requiring co-workers and staff to unwittingly desecrate their sacred texts, Rep. Stahl Hamiltin appears to have violated these laws as well,” the complaint reads.

Beyond the actions this session, the three lawmakers also point in the complaint to comments Stahl Hamilton made in a Twitter post in 2020.

There, she used a picture of Donald Trump posing for a photo-op in front of the parish house of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington holding a Bible aloft in his right hand.

Stahl Hamilton, an ordained Presbyterian minister, said in the post she “got into politics because I was so angered by the number of Bibles on desks at the Arizona State House.”

“Holding a Bible — or any religious text — doesn’t make you a good person,” she posted. “Nor should you use this [as] a political photo op. This is disgusting.”

“Her comments demonstrate a strong disdain for Bibles placed by individual members of the House on their own personal desks, and suggest the presence of Bibles in the House angered her so much that she chose to enter public service,” the complaint says. “Consistent with their constitutional rights, many members keep a Bible on their desks as a reminder of their faith, commitment to personal integrity, or for other reasons.”

The issue is now in the hands of Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale). If he determines there is enough to proceed he will give Stahl Hamilton the opportunity to respond.

That committee can — but is not required to — make recommendations to the full House. It is then up to the chamber to decide whether to pursue the matter.

It takes a simple majority to censure a member. But expulsion requires a two-thirds vote.

That last happened last month when the House voted 46-13 to oust Rep. Liz Harris (R-Chandler).

Lawmakers accepted the findings of the Ethics Committee that she knew that someone she had invited to testify at a joint hearing on election integrity was going to present not just false but libelous accusations against lawmakers, judges and even the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, accusing them of being involved in a criminal scheme to rig elections and other crimes. The committee also concluded that Harris was not truthful with them about what she knew ahead of time about what Scottsdale insurance agent Jacqueline Breger was going to say.

Following state law, precinct committeemen submitted three names to fill the vacancy — including Harris herself. So far, though, Maricopa County supervisors, who have the final word, have yet to choose from that list, leaving the Republican majority with only 30 members, one short of the 31 needed to pass any bill in which Democrats refuse to go along.

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