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Holder Says AG Don't Have to Defend State Laws; Controversy Around Arizona's "Religious Freedom Act"; Gas, Milk Prices Climbing; Actor Gary Sinise Works With Veterans; Michelle Obama on School Nutrition

Aired February 25, 2014 - 11:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN CO-ANCHOR: The Arizona firestorm, criticism rains down on a bill that some say would allow discrimination against gays. It's now on the governor's desk. Will she sign it?

MICHAELA PEREIRA, CNN CO-ANCHOR: A dating site that encourages married people to cheat has 25 million members, its slogan -- life is short, have an affair.

We're going to talk to the founder

BERMAN: And a mystery illness paralyzing children in California, the latest on what doctors know and what they don't know about this mystery, this morning.

Hello, everyone. Great to see you. I'm John Berman.

PEREIRA: And I'm Michaela Pereira. It is 11:00 a.m. in the East, and good morning. It is 8:00 a.m. in the West, those stories and much more, right now, @ THIS HOUR.

@ THIS HOUR, millions are bracing for yet another blast, a bitter blast of cold weather. It's not as bad as the polar vortex episode that we saw last month, but still, cold enough to get our attention and your attention.

That arctic air is hitting Minnesota and the Dakotas today and then it rolls east.

BERMAN: Oh, good.

PEREIRA: Yes, temperatures are expected to be below zero in parts of the North and below freezing in the South.

It has been a bad winter for the South. Forecasters are not expecting any big snow or ice storms, if there's any good news in that.

BERMAN: Now, the growing controversy swirling in Arizona, the Chamber of Commerce there is urging the governor not to sign a bill that critics would say would allow businesses to discriminate against gays.

The bills' supporters say it is all about freedom of religion, including one state senator who has some bold statements. You'll hear from him and the group behind the build in a little bit.

Plus, some outrage from the state's only openly gay legislator.

PEREIRA: And, if the Arizona bill becomes law, the top cop there might not have to enforce it, Attorney General Eric Holder saying state attorneys general don't have to defend laws they feel discriminate against their citizens, including laws banning same-sex marriage.

He spoke just a short time ago.


ERIC HOLDER, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I believe that we must be suspicious of legal classifications based solely on sexual orientation and we must endeavor in all of our efforts to uphold and advance the values that once let our forbearers to declare that all are created equal and entitled to equal opportunity.


PEREIRA: Holder says this shouldn't be about politics, but rather, about basic protection.

Critics say Holder shouldn't be telling attorneys general how to defend their constitutions.

BERMAN: Australia wants almost $2 million for helping out with a rescue in the Antarctic.

So you remember that Russian research ship -

PEREIRA: Sure do.

BERMAN: -- that was stuck a couple of months ago?

There were 52 people on board. Those onboard were airlifted to an Australian icebreaker and brought to safety, so now the Australians say, pay up. And they're working with insurance companies to get reimbursement.

PEREIRA: Good luck getting that check.

BERMAN: I don't know. If you are going to take the risk of going to the Antarctic, you should have to pay for it if you need to be rescued.

PEREIRA: You might have to pay for a little bit of something.

A tremendous recognition of bravery, Ohio's governor gave his annual Courage Awards this year to amazing recipients, well deserved, these three, tremendous, courageous heroes, Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

Those three, young women escaped after years of captivity in a Cleveland home in May. Their kidnapper, as you recall, Ariel Castro, hanged himself in prison. He had been sentenced to life plus 1,000 years.

Well, the voices are certainly growing louder against an Arizona bill that would allow businesses to deny service to gay customers for religious reasons.

Governor Jan Brewer has just a few more days to sign it. She says she is going to do it after she returns from Washington from the governor's convention there.

She is going to veto it or she'll let it become law.

BERMAN: If she doesn't do anything, it becomes law by Saturday.

The state's two U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, they're both Republicans. They are urging the Republican governor to veto it.

There have been daily protests in front of the state capitol since the bill passed, a lot of outrage, and now this, the new concern that it could result in a nationwide boycott against Arizona.

There are serious business concerns now for the state that will host the Super Bowl next year. Our Dana Bash asked the governor what she plans to do.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As a person and as a woman and as somebody who sort of understands the plight of all kinds of people, where does your gut lie right now?

GOV. JAN BREWER (R), ARIZONA: Well, you know, I am a woman.

And I don't rely a whole lot on my gut, because I have to look at what it says and what the law says and take that information and do the right thing.

But I can assure you, as always, I will do the right thing.


BERMAN: So, joining us right now to talk about this is Arizona state representative, Demion Clinco, he's the state's only openly gay lawmaker, and also, Aaron Baer, communications director of the Center for Arizona Policy, which helped craft the bill.

And, Mr. Baer, let me start with you.

So, this bill is now opposed by the state's two Republican U.S. senators. Three state senators who actually voted for it now oppose it. The NFL is giving veiled threats.

And now the Arizona Chamber of Commerce says, "We cannot support measures that could expose our businesses to litigation nor do we want to support anything that says our state is anything but an open and attractive place for visitors and the top talent that will be the cornerstone of our continued economic growth." So the question is, has this measure, which you helped draft, has it backfired?

AARON BAER, CENTER FOR ARIZONA POLICY: Absolutely not. I actually agree with Mr. Holder. This shouldn't be about politics. It should be about basic protections.

And that's what the Senate Bill 1062 is all about. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act has been on the books on the federal level since 1993 and in Arizona since 1999.

And all Senate Bill 1062 does is bring Arizona in line with what a majority of courts have already said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does.

So the key with that is that if any of these terrible things that people are saying will happen under 1062, if any of those things could happen, they would already be happening.

But the reality is that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act has the protections in place to prohibit all of those types of bad scenarios from happening.

BERMAN: How does it have the protections in place. It really seems to, if you read the language, and I do have the language here -- it seems to open the door for the possibility that a business could deny services to someone who is gay or to someone whose religion they don't agree with based on their own religious beliefs.

Doesn't it open that door?

BAER: No, absolutely not. John, tell me specifically what language you are referring to.

BERMAN: It says, "Free exercise of religion is a fundamental right that applies in this state, even if laws, rules or other government actions are facially neutral."

It says, "No matter what the other laws are, freedom of religion does reign."

It also says, "State action shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion."

That seems to me what that bill is written to do is to give people, in your mind, the right to ban gays, to ban others if you disagree with their beliefs.

BAER: Absolutely not. John, all of that language that you read is nothing new to the way religious freedom restoration acts have been classically understood to be understood and interpreted.

These thing have been around for a long time. And so all Arizona is doing in all of these cases where any of these types of things have gone before courts, most courts have said, religious freedom restoration acts should be understood this way. And, thankfully, there are protections in the religious freedom restoration acts to ensure there is no abuse.

So, as I said, if any of these terrible things could happen, they would already be happening.

But, thankfully, there are things like the three-part test, which we codify within the 1062, along with compelling governmental interest and least-restrictive means that are there to ensure none of these things can happen.

PEREIRA: Representative Clinco, let's bring your voice into this discussion. I want your reaction to that. Are we misinterpreting the law?

I know you had a very visceral reaction as the only openly gay legislator there. Do you feel the bill has valid points? Do you feel it's going to allow protections for people?

DEMION CLINCO (D), ARIZONA STATE HOUSE: So, the bill significantly expands the way that religious organizations or individuals can use their sincerely held religious beliefs to discriminate against the LGBT community and anyone who is in any way in opposition to their beliefs.

The bill is a massive expansion from the 1999 law. It sanctions discrimination in our state, and, frankly, it's unacceptable, it's un- American and it's certainly un-Arizonan.

PEREIRA: Mr. Baer, we want to -- the only state senator right now publicly supporting the bill, Senator Al Melvin, spoke to our Anderson Cooper last night.

Anderson brought up a point that the bill would allow businesses to discriminate against anyone, including single moms, divorced women, if religion was cited as a reason.

I want you to listen to this sound. We'll get your reaction on the back end.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, "AC360": Your law, under this law, if I'm an Catholic loan officer, say, in a bank and I don't like the idea of loaning money to a divorced woman because Jesus spoke against divorce very strongly, or I don't want to loan money to an unwed mother, even though she might be able to pay me back, as a loan officer, I just don't -- it is against my religious belief, and my religious belief is sincere, under your law, I could refuse to do business with an unwed mother or a divorced woman, correct?

AL MELVIN (R), ARIZONA STATE SENATE: I don't know where you are getting your hypotheticals from, sir.

Divorced women and what was the other one you cited?

COOPER: Unwed mother. I mean, Jesus spoke --

MELVIN: Who would be against an unwed mother? I wouldn't be. I wouldn't be against a divorced woman. I don't understand.

COOPER: Sir, as you know -- no, sir, I'm not -

MELVIN: You take discrimination to the -nth degree.

COOPER: No, actually, sir, I'm just talking about what Jesus -- Jesus spoke against divorce.


PEREIRA: So I want your reaction on this. Are you claiming that everybody that is against this law being passed is completely missing the point on this bill?

BAER: Fundamentally, yes. There has been so much lies. Fundamentally, yes, there have been so many lies and -- I'm sorry. What's that?

PEREIRA: Go ahead, Mr. Bear.

BAER: Fundamentally, yes, there have been so many lies and misinformation spread out about the bill.

And I can understand if people are worried about it, because some of the reporting on it has completely distorted what Senate Bill 1062 is all about.

All of these -- as I said, all of the hypotheticals that were thrown out that there are people that are going to be denied service, those types of things, those can't happen under the law, because most courts, as I said, going back to the '93 RFRA and to the '99 state RFRA in Arizona and all the states, the 26 states that have religious freedom restoration acts, those things have been on the books for a long time.

And most courts interpret them to do what 1062 does.

BERMAN: Mr. Baer, just yes or no? Do you think a business should be able to have the right to discriminate against someone because they are gay?

BAER: No. That's not what this issue is about.

And the issue of the (inaudible) photography example, the (inaudible) photography case that we keep on citing about why this bill and the photography example is a prime case of where one court misinterpreted RFRA and that net result was somebody being denied to live and work according to their faith.

In that case, it wasn't that they denied service because the photographer said, I don't want to take photos of this same-sex wedding because they were gay.

It was because they shouldn't be forced to celebrate something they hold a sincere religious belief about, which is the definition and the meaning and purpose of marriage.

So in that case, let's use a hypothetical. In that case, if they were actually two straight men wanting to have a same-sex wedding, she still would have said no, because t wasn't the fact that they were gay. It was the fact that it was a same-sex wedding.

That is where her sincerely held religious beliefs, which she would be able to prove in court -- that's where she would be able to say, I have a religious objection against that.

There's plenty of other people out there to do this, to take those photos for you. And reality is, most people would agree that she shouldn't be forced to do that.

A national poll showed that 85 percent of the people -- 85 percent of the people polled believe that she shouldn't be forced to do that.

PEREIRA: Aaron, we want to thank you for joining us. This is obviously -- and I'm sorry, Demion Clinco, we have run out of time.

Look, we understand that the governor has this bill in front of her. Mounting pressure is pushing her to veto it.

We are going to hear more about this in the upcoming hours and days. Thank you both for joining us. We are not going to settle it here to be sure

BERMAN: She has until Saturday.

All right, ahead @ THIS HOUR, say it ain't so. Gas, milk, Mickey Mouse, so many of the things we need to survive, the price is jumping today. And you will not like how long this might last.


PEREIRA: Well, it could be said that some things are just certainly necessities in life, things like gasoline and milk. Maybe even arguably Disney World.

BERMAN: I would say definitely the third there. Now prices for all three of those things are going up. And the problem is, we may not see relief any time soon. So guess who is here to lay this all out for us? Christine Romans, my EARLY START co-anchor and also the chief business correspondent for Earth.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Oh, for Earth. It's my own consumer basket of important inflation topics.

Let's start with gasoline if you will. You have already seen the prices go up and you're going to see it continue to go up. Our friends at GasBuddy say you could see $3.60 on average by Easter. It's $3.43, already up 16 cents from February 6th. Now the good news is, we are lower than we were a year ago but it still hurts when this is your personal economic indicator, gasoline ticking up.

Here's a couple of reasons -- refinery changeovers. You're going to have a new winter blend; winter blend into the spring/summer blend. So all of that typically happens.

PEREIRA: Isn't that a little early though for that?

ROMANS: Yes, I mean, you're going to start seeing it. I know it feels like that; it's awful cold outside, right? But, looking forward, that's what going to happen.

Now milk is the other issue here. This weather has been really difficult on dairy producers. You know, look at stress on the cattle; it costs more to feed them. 30 cent increase in the average milk price from last year, and experts tell us it could rise another 40 to 60 cents in the next few months.

Now it's interesting because you could maybe cut back for milk, but you can't really cut back on gas for the commute. So a lot of people really watching these two really important kind of kitchen table economic stories.

PEREIRA: Those are both issues that affect families. They drive. They need to feed their kids; milk on the cereal. So you want to get away from those woes, you go to Disneyland. Oh but wait.

ROMANS: Oh yes. And then there's Disney. But no one seems to every pull back on their Disney plans, and that seems to be the issue. People keep coming to Disney; Disney can raise the prices and they keep selling the ticket. And look, here is another Disney price increase. Up another $4. Now these are on the day passes. And what the Disney folks tell us, they told us this time, they always tell us when they have a price increase, is that the multi-day passes and the packages are how most people visit Disney and the Disney properties.

PEREIRA: And they're not going up?

ROMANS: Well, I mean, I think it depends on the package. But the base price of the day ticket is coming up. You're going to have use either your travel agent or you, you know, the Disney package that is best for you to try to keep the costs down.

BERMAN: Can I ask one question people might not like the answer to? A little inflation isn't necessarily a bad thing. Doesn't it mean that the economy is improving a little bit?

ROMANS: Well, that's a really sunny-side up way to look at it, John, but if you're paying more out of your own pocket, it means you're paying more. But you're right. I mean, in the case of Disney, it means people are coming. They're making more money. They could raise the prices and you are going to find a way to pay for it. It is a sign of success, I guess.

BERMAN: It's not my fault the milk prices are going up. I'm sorry if...


BERMAN: Christine Romans, thanks so much. Great to see you. All right, so lots of people say they support the troops. But actor Gary Sinise goes way above and beyond to show his commitment to our nation's veterans. Here's how he impacts your world.


GARY SINISE, ACTOR: I thought I would try out my sea legs.

TOM HANKS, ACTOR: But you ain't got no legs, Lieutenant Dan.

REPORTER (voice-over): Long before Gary Sinise played Vietnam veteran, Lieutenant Dan in "Forrest Gump", he was a passionate supporter of the military.

SINISE: Well, I have a long history of working with veterans, starting with the relationships I have in my own personal family. My dad served in the Navy; my two uncles were in World War II. My grandfather in World War I.

REPORTER: With the success of "Forrest Gump," wounded veterans began to identify with Sinise.

SINISE: How many veterans we got here tonight?

REPORTER: He formed the Lieutenant Dan Band and has entertained troops around the world with the USO. The actor says his call to action became very clear after 9/11.

SINISE: When our men and women started deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan, they started getting hurt and killed, and having Vietnam veterans and my family, it was very troubling to think that our men and women would come home to a nation that didn't appreciate them.

See out there.

REPORTER: So he started his own charity dedicated to veterans. The Gary Sinise Foundation helps build customized homes for the severely wounded and helps vets find civiliancareers.

SINISE: I have met hundreds and hundreds of wounded veterans who continue to not let their circumstance get them down. Countless Lieutenant Dans out there that inspire me every day.


PEREIRA: We salute both Gary and our U.S. veterans.

BERMAN: We sure do. Great to see him out there.

PEREIRA: Ahead @ THIS HOUR, the big dog jumping into one of the biggest Senate races in the country. Bill Clinton on the stump. Is this fight really over the past, the present or Hillary's future?


PEREIRA: Happening @ THIS HOUR, Michelle Obama, our First Lady, speaking at the White House, setting out a new proposal on school wellness along with the USCA. Let's listen to her comments.


MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: And water just surpassed soda as the most commonly consumed beverage in America. Yay for water. Drink up.

And today, folks are really starting to think about what they eat and how active they are. So they are scrutinizing labels. They are asking questions. They are changing what they feed their families. And just as we no longer smoke or drink when we're pregnant, just as we no longer let our kids ride their bikes without a helmet or sit in the backseat of a car without a car seat, today, we know that we can no longer let our kids eat whatever they want. Because now we know better. Now, we have seen the devastating effects that poor nutrition has on their health.

And this new approach to eating and activity is not just a fad. And it's no longer just a movement. Instead, here in America, healthy habits are becoming the new norm. Nowhere is that more clear than in our schools which have been a core focus of Let's Move right from the very beginning.

See, Let's Move is based on a very simple idea -- that parents should be in control of their kids' health. And their good efforts at home shouldn't be undermined when they send their kids off to school. Parents have a right to expect that, during the school day, their kids will have food that meets basic nutrition standards. And they'll have a chance to maybe move around a little bit while they're there too.

And that's why we launched Let's Move: Active Schools, and, today, more than 6,500 schools are bringing physical activity back into the classrooms. And because of the Child Nutrition Bill we passed back in 2010, today, nearly 90 percent of our schools -- 90 percent of them -- have already implemented new school lunch standards.

With the hard work of so many administrators and chefs, nutrition professionals and others, these schools have literally transformed their menus. They're serving more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and more lean protein. And starting next fall, they'll be offering only healthy snacks and beverages in their vending machines as well.

So this is a big deal. And so far these changes have been a resounding success. In fact, in a number of American school districts, places like Dallas, Orlando, Cincinnati, although they are not charging any more for their lunches, they are actually making more money, because more kids are participating in the school lunch programs.


BERMAN: That's the First Lady Michelle Obama speaking at the White House. This is the fourth anniversary of her Let's Move program. We're expecting big changes in food labeling this week, and she's talking about school lunches and nutrition there. PEREIRA: What's really important here is they want to be very aware and set some guidelines in a proposal forth about how junk food is marketed to kids in schools. You know, kids see the pictures; it sure makes you want to have a snack, doesn't it? So this is one of the guidelines that they're looking into. We'll keep an eye on that for you.

We'll take another short break @ THIS HOUR; we'll be back in a minute.