Surrounded by more than a hundred supporters, civil rights commissioners and the staff of Colorado’s civil rights agency outside the state Capitol, Gov. John Hickenlooper Tuesday signed into law the bill that keeps the agency on course for the next nine years.
House Bill 1256 reauthorizes both the Division of Civil Rights and the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights until 2027 and makes minor changes in its appointment structure.
The commission has been criticized by businesses and religious leaders as biased against religion, in the wake of a current case awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2012, Jack Phillips, the owner of Lakewood’s Masterpiece Cakeshop, refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage.
That couple filed a complaint with the civil rights division, alleging they had been discriminated against under the state’s public accommodation law, which says that a retailer that is open to the general public cannot pick and choose its customers, including based on their sexual orientation.
The division found probable cause that Phillips had discriminated against the couple, a decision affirmed by the civil rights commission. Phillips challenged that decision with the appeals court, which also found he had discriminated. The Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding the lower-court decision.
Phillips appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments on the case last December. A ruling is expected in June.
The case set religious conservatives on edge, including the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University (CCU). Republican lawmakers promised there would be changes when the agency came up for a sunset review in 2018. That review looks at the agency’s processes and makes recommendations on changes. The review suggested a nine-year reauthorization and upping the fines for discrimination violations, but no other changes in its processes, mission or appointment structure.
In February, the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, which is split 3-3 along party lines, deadlocked on funding the agency beginning July 1. Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud sits on that committee. He promised an audience at CCU last November he would fight for changes to the commission’s mission “so that it actually defends the rights of the people of Colorado, including Jack Phillips. We need to change the way the commissioners are appointed. We need to change the mission they have because we need to defend the liberties of everyone and I assure you we will fight for that in 2018.”
Lundberg said after the JBC vote that he wanted to see what happened with the agency’s sunset review. That decision prompted protests at the state Capitol from civil rights supporters, demanding the General Assembly support the agency.
House Bill 1256 came out of the House Judiciary Committee in March stripped down just to the reauthorization. Its Democratic sponsors — Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and Rep. Leslie Herod, both of Denver — hoped a “clean” version of the bill would be acceptable to Senate Republicans. But despite pledges from House Republicans that they supported the civil rights agency, only two out of the chamber’s 28 Republicans voted in favor of the bill.
Senate Republicans made a host of changes, including a provision that would allow General Assembly leaders to make almost half of the appointments, a move flatly rejected by both House Democrats and Hickenlooper, who said such a change would politicize the commission.
The bill went down to the final hours of the 2018 session when House Democrats threatened to let the bill die. That played into a roll-the-dice strategy for 2019, one where Democrats hope to take control of the state Senate and retain control of the governor’s mansion.
The agency would have been able to continue for another year — its funding was set into the 2018-19 state budget by the House and Senate during the budget process — and Democrats could come up with a version more to their liking.
Republican Sen. John Cooke of Greeley, who sat on the conference committee attempting to come up with an agreement, became the bill’s last-minute champion. He agreed to minor changes to the appointment structure in which two representatives of business would be added to the seven-member group. The agreement also allowed the governor to retain his authority on making commission appointments.
Cooke was present at Tuesday’s bill signing. The bill’s Senate sponsor, Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs, who turned down the compromise offered on the last day that almost led to the bill’s defeat and had who voted against the compromise, was not. Senate President Kevin Grantham of Canon City, who attended the signing ceremony, told Colorado Politics Gardner was “unavailable.”
“We are so proud to make sure this got done the right way,” Hickenlooper told the joyful crowd. “We were able to cut through the partisanship.”
“If we’re not willing” to protect the rights of every Coloradan, then “we’re saying we’re not all equal. The General Assembly did the right thing,” he added. “We were able to keep politics out of the civil rights commission.”
Duran launched into a rousing speech, noting it was the last bill signing for her legislative career.
“I feel like I have to speak the truth as it relates to advocacy for civil rights,” Duran said. She explained that many lawmakers were concerned when the JBC deadlocked on funding the agency as well as concerns about attempts to stack the deck on the commission “that would have led to unfair and unjust results.”
At a time when in Colorado, “we see more acts of discrimination, hate rhetoric that has been normalized that is not normal, it is more important than ever that we do not compromise away the civil rights of Coloradans,” Duran said.
“Sometimes you must plant your feet firm and stay strong … We are living in a time when people feel under attack from the values coming out of Washington, D.C.” and someday in the future people will look to see who supported civil rights and who did not, she added.
Herod echoed that, pointing out that House Democrats refused to make deals that would have changed the commission.
“We must have a division that protects everyone from injustice, whether based on race, religion, ability, marital status,” Herod said. “…These are not at conflict. If you have a public business in Colorado, you cannot discriminate.”