Despite some applause in the closing moments of the 2018 legislative session last week, when both the House and Senate passed compromise reform of the state’s Civil Rights Commission, there was little to cheer about.
Lawmakers were making some noise after wrangling for months over the fate of the commission.
Opportunistic GOP critics of the state’s statutory defense against bigotry and discrimination pounced on an opportunity to hobble or destroy the committee early on in the legislative session, as the commission came up for its regular re-authorization.
A bevy of state Republicans, but not all, have had their sights set on the commission ever since it weighed in on the infamous gay wedding cake scandal in 2012. The international embarrassment erupted when Lakewood wedding cake-baker Jack Phillips refused to make a wedding cake for two gay men, saying his Christian religious beliefs compelled him to snub the request.
The Colorado commission rightly drew the parallel between Phillip’s bigotry and the not-so-long-ago days of segregation and institutionalized, legalized bigotry in the South.
Not here. Not in Colorado. The commission made clear Philip’s bigotry toward gays was illegal and unsavory, directing him to take tolerance classes and change his policies. Colorado’s highest court upheld the commission’s ruling, and now the matter is before the same U.S. Supreme Court that ruled in favor of the rights of same-sex couples to marry.
Despite that, both Phillips and legislative Republicans have continued to offer cliche responses, saying this gay-wedding cake scandal had nothing to do with discounting the rights of homosexuals, but only upholding the right of religious freedom.
It’s the same argument dismissed time and again by federal courts in cases involving religious claims against bi-racial marriage, minority exclusions from lodging, schools and even clubs.
Religion is not a legal nor moral defense for bigotry.
Powerful state Republicans have pushed back hard against that legal and moral mantra. This year, they sought to hold the commission hostage with a funding scheme. When that didn’t work, they pushed to radically change the structure of the commission, allowing partisan state lawmakers to make appointments to the panel in hopes of solidifying votes that would uphold bigotry.
Just hours before the end of the legislative session, an agreement was struck between Democrats and Republicans that would install additional business representatives on the commission.
That’s not such a bad thing. The commission members would still all be appointed by the governor, not legislators on a mission to exert control over the commission, rather than assemble a committee to apply a sense of justice.
The mistake lawmakers made was in bending to the will of Senate Republican leaders and requiring that no more than three members of the commission come from the same political party.
It’s dispiriting to think that elected officials would see advantage in the dispute over civil rights couched in party affiliation.
Clearly, Republicans think “their side” would be more inclined to rule against gays and other minorities, giving them at least some hope that their wrongheaded religion argument would find traction on the commission.
Democrats clearly hold out hope that a Democratic governor would find Republican commissioners sympathetic to the plight of abused minorities.
Bigotry and discrimination are not partisan issues. They should not be the basis for preserving or precluding civil rights.
Colorado Gov. John Hicknelooper has indicated he’ll sign this measure, hailing it as a compromise.
If Colorado is now in the business of compromising civil rights for the sake of political gain or partisan satisfaction, we’re in grave trouble. The rights of minorities in an environment where elected officials are anxious to usurp them need stronger protection, not weaker. Hickenlooper should veto this bill.