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AZ Republicans fail to expel Democratic lawmaker over Bible prank

By Ben Giles
Published: Tuesday, June 13, 2023 - 3:28pm
Updated: Monday, November 6, 2023 - 2:58pm

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Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton (left) listens June 13, 2023, as fellow Democratic Rep. Mae Peshlakai explains why she will not vote to censure the Tucson lawmaker.

Arizona House Republicans tried, but failed, to expel a Democratic lawmaker who admitted to a Bible-hiding prank caught on hidden camera.

Instead, GOP representatives could only muster a 30-28 vote to censure Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton on Tuesday.

Stahl Hamilton, a Tucson Democrat and ordained Presbyterian minister, has never disputed the facts of the matter — on three separate occasions, swiping Bibles from end tables in the Arizona House members’ lounge and hiding them under cushions, and in one instance, a nearby refrigerator. She has described her actions as a playful commentary on the separation of church and state and a protest against the weaponization of religion in politics.

But many Republicans were outraged by what they called the “desecration” of scripture — some commented that they may have unknowingly sat on the Bible when it was hidden under seat cushions.

“To do so is flagrantly offensive, and something the House needs to take seriously,” said Rep. Justin Heap, one of three Republicans who filed an ethics complaint against Stahl Hamilton over the incidents.

Heap, who voted for expulsion, said the matter “really comes down to a simple question: What do we as a body value more? The reputations of Arizona politicians or the reputation of God in the world?” 

“I know which side of that debate that I come down on,” Heap said.

Other Republicans invoked the April expulsion of former Rep. Liz Harris for inviting a witness to present false charges about lawmakers and other state officials — and then, according to an ethics committee report, lying about her involvement in the outrageous testimony.

Though the circumstances of their actions were vastly different, the House Ethics Committee found both Harris and Stahl Hamilton in violation of House Rule No. 1, which governs disorderly conduct.

Still, the vote fell well short of the two-thirds majority needed to kick a member of the House, as Democrats and four Republicans rejected the motion to expel.

One of those Republicans, Rep. David Cook, also voted against the censure and defended Stahl Hamilton’s character while lamenting her poor judgment.

“Everyone in this room, everyone you know, every family member that I know, has made a poor decision at one time or another. And I think this is overkill for a bad, chosen prank,” Cook said in explaining his vote against expulsion. “And an apology was good with me.”

The Tuesday votes followed a full-blown investigation into the matter, even after Hamilton was caught, admitted to and apologized for her actions. The committee’s unanimous seven page report cast doubt on the sincerity of her apology, as well as Stahl Hamilton’s characterization of her actions as a “joke.”

“Many members of this committee do not view this as an act of jest,” the report stated.

The report concluded that, by hiding Bibles, Stahl Hamilton “deprived members who choose to exercise their religious beliefs by referring to the biblical texts of an opportunity to do so.”

The committee also wrote that the “offense and disrespect” Stahl Hamilton displayed for the Bible were not unique to the Bible.

“Her actions would have been equally offensive and disrespectful if it had been the Book of Mormon, Qur’an, or any other religious text,” the report stated.

However, the Bible is the only religious text available in the members lounge.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been modified to correct the number of Republicans who rejected the motion to expel.

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