Republican state lawmakers are effectively shutting down a state agency that is at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the rights of a gay couple who were refused service by a Christian baker.
The Joint Budget Committee held up funding for Colorado’s Civil Rights Commission following a split, party-line vote this afternoon. The decision would cut off state funding for the regulatory agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws on July 1. This drew protests from Democrats and the LGBTQ community.
The agency is fighting a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that pits religious liberties against anti-discrimination protections. It involves the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple because he said it conflicted with his First Amendment right of artistic, religious and free speech expression.
Committee member Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said Republicans’ decision to withhold funding for the commission, which operates under the Colorado Civil Rights Division, is related to that pending case.
“They want to limit what the Office of Civil Rights can do,” Moreno told reporters, referring to the Civil Rights Division. “The office is there to protect everyone’s civil rights, whether it’s your sexual orientation, your race, your religion or your national origin.”
The Civil Rights Commission is up for a sunset review this year, meaning lawmakers will have to reauthorize the program this legislative session if it is to continue operating. Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who voted against the budget request, wants to wait for the review to play out. The Civil Rights Division, which includes the commission, is requesting $2.1 million for next year.
“My argument against approving their funding today is we need to wait and see what the legislature does with the renewal of the law authorizing the commission,” Lundberg said on Facebook on Thursday.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, who started his career as an investigator for the Civil Rights Division, said the vote indicates Republicans don’t want the commission reauthorized.
“They are telegraphing that this division is not going to get out of the Senate,” Salazar told The Colorado Independent. “Unfortunately, they’ve just affected the lives of over 5 million Coloradans here who have relied on the Civil Right Division to protect their civil rights.”
Executive Director Daniel Ramos, of the LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado, said today’s vote “sends a very disturbing message about how much they value protecting the civil rights of all Coloradans, including LGBTQ Coloradans.”
Last year, Senate Republicans voted down the re-appointment of LGBTQ advocate Heidi Jeanne Hess as head of the Civil Rights Commission, citing concerns over Hess’ ties with Ramos’ group.
Jacque Montgomery, the press secretary for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said refusing to fund the Civil Rights Commission is puzzling, “and sends the wrong message to Coloradans – and businesses looking to move to Colorado – on the state’s commitment to equal rights.”
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in mid-December. The case is seen as a defining battle for religious liberties – mainly Christian ones – in the U.S. The legal argument goes like this: Masterpiece owner Jack Phillips didn’t discriminate against would-be customers Charlie Craig and David Mullins in July 2012 by refusing to make them a custom wedding cake, but rather is the victim of Colorado’s overreaching anti-discrimination law whose insistence that he serve same-sex couples violates his belief that homosexuality is a sin and tramples on his constitutionally protected artistic expression as a self-described “cake artist.”
The ultra-conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom represented the bakery and is using the case to rally for its anti-LGBTQ agenda nationally.
A Supreme Court decision is pending.