DENVER - The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee turned thumbs down on two bills that would have protected businesses that discriminate against gays.
House Bill 15-1171, also known as the “Freedom of Conscience Protection Act,” would have given businesses accused of discrimination an affirmative defense, if the alleged discrimination was based on deeply-held personal beliefs.
House Bill 15-1161 would have prevented the state from compelling a person to “involuntarily” engage in speech, artistic expression or religious expression they wouldn’t ordinarily engage in.
The genesis of both bills is a case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, whose owner, Jack Phillips, was charged with discrimination after he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. Phillips informed them that, because of his religious beliefs, he didn’t sell wedding cakes to same-sex couples.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission affirmed an administrative law judge’s ruling that Phillips discriminated against the couple.
Some lawmakers say the rules regarding discrimination are too one-sided.
“There’s a tendency to protect speech we like and punish speech we don’t like,” said the sponsor of H.B. 15-1161, Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-El Paso County. “Colorado law is compelling people to utter words that are not on their mind, and that’s unconstitutional."
The sponsor of H.B. 15-1171, Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Douglas County, said “Every American should celebrate laws that provide greater protections for our most important freedoms -- the right to speak, the right not to speak and the freedom to live faithfully.”
But opponents of the bills they’d open up a can of worms.
During a rally before today’s House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing, Attorney Michael Carrigan, a former senior deputy district attorney in Denver said there are four words inscribed on the United States Supreme Court Building – Equal justice under law.
Carrigan said the proposed bills “Would create a dangerous exception to equality by saying the citizen, any citizen, can claim his or her personal beliefs puts them above the law.”
He opined that, “A police officer could decline to defend a mosque saying it goes against his religious beliefs.”
Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, Executive Director of the ACLU of Colorado, testified that his organization strongly upholds the principle of religious liberty.
"What religious liberty does not mean," he said, "is the 'freedom' to enforce your religious beliefs or practices on other people, to use the power of government to favor or promote your religion, or to discriminate in business or the public arena against customers or employees."
He said the ACLU has no opposition to religion, "but the religious freedom we uphold has to apply to all religions and must respect equal protection laws."
Woodliff-Stanley also said H.B. 1161 would "tear apart" Colorado public accommodation and nondiscrimination laws.
"The ACLU upholds freedom of speech and expression for all persons in this nation, but the idea that businesses should be exempt from equal protection, public accommodation or nondiscrimination laws if the business is 'expressive' in some manner is just a way to allow virtually any form of discrimination in nearly any business against anyone the owners don't like. Any form of writing, cooking, assembling, advertising, decorating or displaying could be considered 'expressive,' so it's hard for me to think of a business that would not be allowed do discriminate under this bill," he said.
Rev. Brian Rossbert, of the United Methodist Church, said, “This legislation is ugly. It’s mean spirited and it’s intended for bad, not good.”
Rossbert told 7NEWS that religion has been used to justify many forms of discrimination.
“Those segregation laws that we had in this country, some of them had religious underpinnings. And I think we’ve grown up as a nation to sort of come to the conclusion that we don’t want to discriminate against anyone, whether it’s on a religious belief or anything else.”
But attorney Nicolle Martin, who supports both bills, said opponents are making the bills out to be something onerous.
“It must be a sincerely held religious belief,” she said. “And these bills would only be used as an affirmative defense, not to invalidate existing law.”
Both the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce opposed the bills saying they could negatively impact the ability to attract and retain a talented work force.
But Martin said bills like these are needed because “there is no remedy for people of faith who are being coerced by the government to do and say things against their will.”
Committee members voted down both bills, and then voted to postpone them indefinitely, which means they can’t be brought up again this session.