It’s religious freedom day at the Colorado General Assembly
When the Arizona legislature passed religious freedom bill SB 1062 last year, the backlash came fast. Major corporations, including Apple, American Airlines, American Express, Marriott as well as the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee pressed Governor Jan Brewer to kill the bill, as did politicians across the country on the left and right. Brewer, a high-profile conservative figure and supporter of the religious freedom movement, vetoed the bill.
She explained to reporters from across the country at the press conference that followed the veto that the bill “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine and no one would ever want.”
Similar “turn the gays away” bills have hit the skids in conservative states such as Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota and Tennessee.
But in Colorado, the religious freedom movement shows no sign of flagging.
For months last year, Lakewood baker Jack Phillips made headlines when he was taken to court for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Same with the Colorado Springs Pine Creek public high school students who formed a Christian prayer and singing group and were made to disband it by the school district.
Colorado Springs-based evangelical juggernaut Focus on the Family routinely flogs the topic of religious freedom.
“We can’t afford to lose momentum,” the group’s political arm CitizenLink wrote to supporters after Republican election wins in November. “The attacks on people of faith who want to run their businesses according to their beliefs haven’t let up… We’ve seen so many small business owners — florists, bakers and photographers — harassed, fined and even forced to choose between their livelihood and their faith. The next step will be to target all Americans of faith.”
At the end of January, a “Religious Freedom Forum” hosted by members of the Mormon and Catholic faiths in Colorado Springs drew some 700 attendees, including top politicians in the area, including former state Attorney General John Suthers, who is running for mayor.
And at the Capitol in Denver, not one but two religious freedom bills have been introduced since the legislative session opened in January. Both bills will be heard today in the House State Affairs Committee. There will be colorful witnesses called on to testify and there surely will be heated reference to the Founding Fathers, liberty, bakeries and sodomy. And then, just as surely, the majority Democrats on the committee will vote to kill the bills.
Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and his son Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, have sponsored what some have dubbed a “super mini-RFRA.”
“RFRA” (“pronounced riff-ra”) stands for Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was a national bill. State bills are mini-RFRAs, and the Nevilles’ bill, HB 1171, appears to be the latest variety of mini-RFRA — a more potent version that aims to make it easier to invoke religion as a defense against discrimination charges.
Specifically, the “Freedom of Conscience Protection Act” aims to ratchet down the standard by which it would be okay to discriminate. As the law stands now, baking a cake for a gay couple, for example, must “substantially burden” the exercise of a baker’s religion (or a bakery’s religion, oddly enough) to be legally justified. That’s a high bar. The Neville bill would eliminate the word “substantially.” At the same time, it aims to ratchet up the rights of the faithful in relation to the general public by redefining the key phrase “compelling government interest” — that is, for example, the interest on the part of the government in protecting all Americans equally from discrimination. The Neville bill defines “compelling government interest” to mean “a governmental interest of the highest magnitude that can not otherwise be achieved without burdening the exercise of religion (emphasis added).” Whatever a court might eventually determine that to mean, it certainly makes the right to purchase a wedding cake or to sit at a lunch counter or at the front of a bus seem relatively insignificant — not at all the sort of thing that should concern the most-essential workings of the machinery of state.
It’s worth noting that Georgia lawmakers also introduced a religious freedom bill this year that seeks to rework the legal phrase “compelling government interest” in the exact same way.
The other religious freedom bill on the docket today is HB 1161, introduced by controversial former Navy chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, a Colorado Springs internet video preacher who won election to the House in November. “Dr. Chaps” is a quirky figure and his bill is quirky too. The “Chaps” bill seems directly concerned with protecting bakers as artists — or something. It takes as its unarticulated starting point the fact that Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission last May agreed with a judge that Lakewood cake baker Phillips did discriminate against the gay couple he refused to do business with, and it required him to retrain his staff and to submit reports demonstrating the bakery’s progress away from anti-gay discrimination. Klingenschmitt championed the cause of the “anti-gay baker” and later championed the cause of a Denver “pro-gay baker,” who refused to make a cake decorated with an anti-gay message.
In its own words, Klingenschmitt’s bill “specifies that neither the civil rights division, the civil rights commission, nor a court with jurisdiction to hear civil actions brought under the public accommodations laws may compel involuntary speech or acts of involuntary artistic expression or involuntary religious expression by a person when such speech or acts of artistic or religious expression would lead to that person directly or indirectly participating in, directly or indirectly supporting, or endorsing or impliedly endorsing an ideology, ceremony, creed, behavior, or practice with which the person does not agree.”
Rep. Klingenscmitt, a small-government Republican, would seem to be asking the state to determine what counts as artistic expression, which is a business at least as thick and sticky as any cake batter.
The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is holding a conference at the Capitol before the committee hearing begins to express its opposition. “These bills would carve out broad exceptions to anti-discrimination laws under the guise of religious liberty,” the organization said in a release.
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