DENVER - The Colorado Senate has introduced a bill removing unenforced criminal penalties for discrimination in businesses following the passage of a bill legalizing civil unions for same-sex couples.
A Senate bill introduced this week would remove criminal penalties for discriminating in places of public accommodation. Democrats and Republicans are sponsoring it together after discussions about a separate bill granting legal recognition to same-sex couples.
Republicans who oppose civil unions have questioned whether business owners could face jail time for refusing to serve gays and lesbians.
"By saying they don't want to provide service to someone, they shouldn't go to jail," said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction. King voted against the civil-unions bill for same-sex couples.
Democrats who support civil unions have insisted that because Colorado's criminal statute for discrimination has never been enforced, its existence shouldn't prevent support for civil unions.
One of the sponsors of the civil-unions bill, Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, said opponents have repeatedly expressed fears that wedding planners or other business people could be tossed in jail for refusing to serve gays or lesbians. Formally removing the criminal section from Colorado law could ensure that couldn't happen.
"No one has ever gone to jail for a day for this," Steadman said Wednesday. Employment discrimination already is punishable only by civil fines, not jail, and Steadman said public accommodation policies should be the same.
"It's taking a red herring off the table," Steadman said of the repeal.
The civil-unions bill has passed the Senate and awaits consideration in the House. The accommodations discrimination bill awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. King and Steadman hoped for the public accommodations discrimination repeal would face little opposition.
"I think that law was passed in the 1800s. It's never been used," King said, "This can be handled in the civil statute and doesn't even need to be in the criminal statute."
View Senate Bill 184 online: http://bit.ly/XlqBH0.