Colorado Republicans have tabled funding for the state’s civil rights commission after it ruled in favor of a gay couple who say they were discriminated against by a Christian baker.
On Friday, the Joint Budget Committee voted to temporarily withhold funds for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission during debate over its reauthorization. State boards are subject to sunset review every few years in which the legislature determines whether or not those entities will continue to operate.
Although such review is periodic and routine, cutting off funding during the process is “unprecedented,” claims One Colorado Executive Director Daniel Ramos.
“What typically happens is that the agency puts this report together, goes through the legislature, and has the ability to determine what is working to make appropriate adjustments based on the findings of the sunset report,” Ramos says, adding that this is “one of the first cases” in which conservatives have broken with standard procedure.
“You fund what you prioritize,” he tells INTO. “For Republicans on the budget committee to make this move, they’ve made a very bold statement that they are not prioritizing the civil rights of any Coloradansincluding LGBTQ people.”
Conservatives have claimed they have no intention to disband the Civil Rights Commission. Instead they say they’d like to overhaul it.
State Sen. Bob Gardner claims the government regulatory agencywhich oversees claims of discriminationwields too much power. After telling the local news station KDVR the “makeup of the commission is not balanced,” he suggested that the sole power of appointment be taken away from the executive branch. The current governor, John Hickenlooper, is a Democrat.
Conservative Yeulin Willett of the Colorado House agreed that the civil rights body had “gotten a little far skewing.”
Democratic Rep. Dominick Moreno, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, tells INTO that these statements are “directly related” to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The only feasible reason to withhold funding for these important agencies is to gain leverage in order to make changes in how they operate,” he says.
Jack Phillips, a Christian baker in Lakewood, denied services to Charlie Craig and David Mullins in 2012 after they requested he make a cake for their wedding. He claimed his religious beliefs did not permit him to do so. The Civil Rights Commission ruled that refusal was in violation of the state’s nondiscrimination laws, which prohibit bias against LGBTQ people.
Phillips would later appeal, arguing the decision violated his Constitutional rights. The nation’s highest bench heard oral arguments in the caseknown as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commissionin December.
Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, Colorado’s first-ever black lesbian state lawmaker, claims that holding the state hostage over the Masterpiece case is “abhorrent.”
“Colorado ruled the way that Colorado ruled because the gay couple was being discriminated against,” she tells INTO in a phone conversation. “If you have a public business, you cannot discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation or gender expression. That’s the law in Colorado.”
“If someone wants to open a business and they don’t want to abide by state laws, they have to go to another state and operate a business there,” Herod continues.
Advocates claim that any action to disband the Colorado Civil Rights Commission or curtail its powers would effectively legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Although the state’s nondiscrimination laws would still be on the books, it would remove a key mechanism of enforcing those policies.
“If you are wealthy enough, you will still be able to bring a lawsuit and go through a court challenge, but that’s really difficult for people who don’t have the funds to do so,” Herod says.
Going to court to pursue a discrimination lawsuit is expensive, and agencies like the Civil Rights Commission act as critical go-betweens for individuals who wouldn’t be able to afford it. The process doesn’t require paying exorbitant attorney’s fees or taking time off workwhich may not be an option for low-income folks.
The Republican stalemate over the sunset review is likely to hurt the very population who needs the government agency most, critics say.
The move, however, wouldn’t just impact LGBTQ people. During a Tuesday rally, Randy Kilbornan advocate for people with disabilitiesclaimed he recently had fielded a case where a landlord denied to rent an apartment to a man with a stutter.
Herod told the estimated 500 protesters gathered outside the state capitol building that discrimination “knows no party affiliation.”
“This doesn’t have to be a partisan battle,” she claimed. “Democrats, Republicans, Independents all of us may one day, ourselves, our neighbors, may come face to face with discrimination. It’s up to all of us to fight together, to cross party lines to defend our rights.”
If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission will be defunded on July 1.
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