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Biblegate: How a prank in the Arizona House turned into a formal ethics investigation

Amid a small gathering inside the Arizona House members' lounge, state Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton wasn’t exactly subtle.

Caught on camera, the Democrat swiped a Bible from an end table and appeared to place it under a nearby cushion. 

In what her own pastor described as an “ill-advised prank,” Stahl Hamilton, who is a Presbyterian minister herself, had been hiding Bibles from the members’ lounge in odd places, like inside a refrigerator. Stahl Hamilton has explained it as a playful commentary on the separation of church and state and a protest against the weaponization of religion in politics

The prank captured the attention of GOP leadership who, after finding the missing Bibles, decided to install hidden cameras to catch the culprit. Since they found out, not all of Stahl Hamilton’s colleagues are laughing. Three even filed a formal ethics complaint against her.

Ethics complaint leads to an investigation

“We, and other members of the Arizona House who cherish our faith and hold the Bible in reverence, do not see Representative Stahl Hamilton's disrespect of scripture as playful in any regard,” Reps. Justin Heap, David Marshall and Lupe Diaz wrote. 

The three first-term Republican representatives filed the ethics complaint against Stahl Hamilton last week. In it, they accuse her of disorderly conduct under House rules, theft, and creating a hostile work environment under state and federal laws protecting workers from religious discrimination.

To be clear, a House ethics inquiry can’t find anyone criminally liable for anything — it’s no court of law. 

The complaint could amount to nothing. It could also end in a House vote for punishment: as little as a censure, or, at most, expulsion. Republican Rep. Joseph Chaplik, who chairs the House Ethics Committee, is taking it seriously.

“Something of this magnitude that's made national news, I think it's only wise to allow the person that has the claim held against him to come and speak about it,” he said. “Due process, let them talk and understand what happened and let's figure out if this is a valid or invalid claim against them.”

Democrats say it’s political retribution

Democrats are quick to point out the prank only made national headlines after GOP House leaders released select footage from their hidden-camera sting operation to a local TV station.

“This could have been handled with a phone call by the (House) speaker and the majority,” said House Minority Leader Andrés Cano. “It didn't have to be a political gotcha moment.”

Cano told Arizona PBS he fears the complaint is payback against Stahl Hamilton — she filed an ethics complaint in March that led to the expulsion of a Republican representative for that lawmaker’s role in spreading a baseless election conspiracy theory about other lawmakers.

“This should not be about political retribution, and I'm worried with what I'm seeing so far,” Cano said.

Well before the complaint was filed against her, Stahl Hamilton apologized for her actions. In a speech delivered on the House floor, she said she never meant to desecrate the Bible or offend.

“I hold scripture very dear to my heart,” she said. “It is what guides me. It is what shapes and informs the decisions I make.”

A conversation about the separation of church and state, she said, would have been better started as an actual conversation — not a stunt like this.

“I recognize that my actions could have been seen as something less than playful and offensive,” Stahl Hamilton continued. “And for those of you who I have deeply offended, I apologize.”

In her formal, written response to the ethics complaint against her, Stahl Hamilton’s attorneys wrote that her actions were a peaceful protest “in response to the weaponizing of religion in politics.”

The Bible’s role in politics

The Rev. Katie Sexton-Wood doesn’t condone Stahl Hamilton’s behavior.

“I don’t necessarily agree with putting a Bible in a refrigerator,” she said, but she also appreciates the point the representative was trying to make. 

Sexton-Wood heads the Arizona Faith Network and is a pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Bible is, but shouldn’t be, the lone religious document in the members’ lounge, she said.

“I carry my Bible with me to places that I may want to have reference to it,” she said. “But I'm not putting it out in the halls of our Capitol, where it can be seen as a predominant document that is forming and informing laws that are being made.”

Put another way, it’s one thing for individual lawmakers to have Bibles on their desks. But Sexton-Wood says she wonders what Bibles are doing in the members’ lounge in the first place.

“We still need to talk about why it was those actions were necessary to begin with in [Stahl Hamilton’s] mind,” she said. “And that’s going to require a conversation around whether that Bible should be in there or not to begin with.”

Or at least, she said, a conversation about what other sacred texts deserve a place in the members’ lounge as well.

With an ethics inquiry underway, it’s not a conversation Cano anticipates having.

“I have not gotten any reassurance that the Book of Mormon, the Quran, any of the texts that are super important to Arizonans, Americans, people of this world, would be included in our members’ lounge,” he told Arizona PBS.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.