State House says hell no on religious exemptions bill

Even in redder-than-red Indiana, discriminating against someone because of their sexual orientation is frowned upon. Look at the outcry that came from business leaders and the Republican mayor of Indianapolis after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed a law in 2015 that legalized discrimination against the state’s LGBTQ community.

So great was the backlash that barely a week later, the Indiana legislature amended the law to clarify that discrimination is still illegal. But the damage was done: the state lost millions of dollars in business from canceled events and abandoned business expansions.

Colorado will not be following Indiana’s example anytime soon.

On Wednesday, the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted along party lines to reject the fifth attempt by Republicans to enact a law that would allow business owners to discriminate based on their religious beliefs.

At the federal level, it’s known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. So far, at least 20 states have passed their own versions of it.

While the measure doesn’t specifically target the LGBTQ community, it does prevent “any state action that may burden a person’s exercise of religion,” which has been interpreted to mean that the state cannot bar someone from discriminating against someone else based on religious beliefs. The bill does say that people cannot discriminate based on race or ethnicity.  Those who testified Wednesday said what’s left is discrimination based on gender or sexual preference.

Reps. Stephen Humphrey of Eaton and Dave Williams of Colorado Springs co-sponsored the bill. “Millions [of] Coloradans agree that they should be free to practice their faith without the threat of reprisal from government or political extremists whose ideology denies our fundamental First Amendment rights,” Williams said.

Colorado’s recent history on this dates back to 2012, when Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Bakery in Lakewood, turned away a gay couple who wanted a custom wedding cake for their upcoming marriage. The couple filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in their favor. Phillips appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, which also sided with the couple. The Colorado Supreme Court refused to take up the case.

Last year, Phillips and his attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has not decided whether to consider it.

Wednesday’s four-hour hearing pitted rabbi against rabbi, one Christian pastor against another, and Republican against Republican. It also brought out one of the state’s leading business advocates, who is tired of having to come down to the Capitol to testify against bills like this.

“There’s a message that’s being sent in Colorado every time this bill comes up,” says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Every year, this bill gets overwhelming opposition from all sectors of the community, yet lawmakers continue to bring it forward, she said. At its root, she contined, the bill  is about a “lack of respect for others, intolerance,” and closed doors, and it is counter to what many Coloradans believe. It ays to the LGBTQ community that “we don’t want you and don’t need you, and that’s not true and not right.”

Brough said she’s frustrated that for the third year in a row the chamber has had to use its resources to fight the measure.

But beyond the social impact, there’s the potential of an economic one, too. Brough pointed out that Indiana lost $60 million in business after Pence signed that state’s law. That included a refusal by out-of-staters to invest in the state and strong criticism from some of the state’s highest profile employers, including pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company. Angie’s List, based in Indianapolis, canceled expansion plans after Pence signed the law.

Colorado should know the repercussions of homophobic policy-making because the state has been down this road before.

In 1992, voters approved Amendment 2, which declared that local, county, city and town governments could not adopt any rule or law that would protect members of the LGBTQ community from discrimination. The law passed with 53 percent approval, but was never enacted due to lawsuits. In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

But in the four years between the vote and the Supreme Court’s decision, Colorado was hit with boycotts and business losses. At least 60 conventions scheduled for Colorado were canceled; 20 cities severed ties with the state, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Atlanta and Philadelphia. The city of New York canceled a contract with a Colorado company for buses. More than 100 restaurants in New York cut Colorado products off their menus. The economic loss in the first six months after voters approved Amendment 2 was estimated at $25 million, about $42 million in today’s dollars.

Brough doesn’t want to see that happen again. “Colorado is open to business to everybody, regardless of how you worship and who you love.” What Colorado businesses want is talent, she said, and that’s without regard to sexual orientation.

And just like the previous four times the measure was proposed, the committee voted it down, this time on a 6-3 party-line vote, with all six Democrats voting against and three Republicans in favor.

The vote was not unexpected by its sponsors. The State Affairs Committee is known as a “kill” committee, where bills disliked by the majority Democratic House leadership are sent to meet their end.

Within moments of the vote, Humphrey and Williams issued statements decrying the committee’s decision. “Religious freedom is the primary right of all Americans, and it is unfortunate that here in Colorado there is no protection for the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights,” said Humphrey.

“Business will continue to thrive, as they do in Indiana and the majority of states that have strong legal protections against religious discrimination,” Humphrey said, omitting the fact that Indiana lawmakers almost immediately modified its law after business leaders loudly protested it would hurt the state’s economy.

“It’s troubling that Democrats are willing to violate the sincerely held beliefs of an individual,” added Williams, referring to Phillips.

Democrats, meanwhile, said the right to discriminate will never happen so long as they are in charge of the House.

Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo is one of four LGBTQ members of that chamber. She spoke earlier in the day at a rally to drum up opposition to the measure: “Thankfully here at this capitol, we have a majority of people who stand with us to defeat bills…that try to make discrimination legal or try to make anyone feel like they are not equal.”

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.


  1. Please join me in a new religion founded here in Colorado.

    We sincerely believe in an infinitely speedy God, and therefore it is a matter of faith and religious exercise that we travel as fast as possible to honor Him. We meet at midnight (en mass) on Saturdays on I-25.

    Speeding tickets are thus religiously burdensome, and we need this “religious freedom” RFRA law to prevent the discrimination that state speeding laws represent to us.

    We are persecuted, PERSECUTED! I tell you.

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