Masterpiece Cakeshop baker back in court over 2nd LGBT bias allegation

In this June 4 file photograph, baker Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, manages his shop after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he could refuse to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs did not violate Colorado's anti-discrimination law in Lakewood.

An effort by a conservative Colorado House Republicans to find a way to force the state to reimburse Jack Phillips, the owner of Lakewood's Masterpiece Cakeshop, for attorney fees and loss of business income failed to gain sympathy from a Democratic-controlled House committee Tuesday.

House Bill 1081, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, would require about $2.6 million, beginning in 2019-20, to cover attorneys fees and other costs for those sued by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. 

That money would pay for a public defender, regardless of the defendant's income; allow a defendant to request that the case move to another court if the case is based on a First Amendment claim; and/or allow a defendant to recoup legal costs and lost business income when the defendant wins the case.

Williams told the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where most of Williams' bills get sent, that the bill is intended to "reform" the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, specifically adding due process protections for those "in the crosshairs of the commission." In addition, Williams said First Amendment considerations are better suited in a court of law than the Civil Rights Commission.

As to Phillips, Williams said the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in his favor was a "moral victory," but one that didn't cover the loss of 40 percent of his business. Williams designed the bill to be retroactive, for "appeals or actions for judicial review filed on or after Dec. 1, 2013."

Williams told the committee that the bill is not specifically geared to Phillips, but the bill's fiscal analysis notes only one case so far that qualifies for recouping business losses that go back to the intended effective date in 2013: the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Even though Williams said the bill was not designed for Phillips, he admitted that most of the $2.6 million contained in the bill's costs would go to reimburse Phillips.

But Phillips shouldn't count on a check from the state anytime soon. Neither he nor his attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom testified at Tuesday's hearing.

The only person who testified in favor of the bill was attorney Kristi Brown, who has attempted in the past to put a personhood initiative on the statewide ballot. Brown, who does not represent Phillips, said the state Constitution grants due process to the accuser  the Civil Rights Commission  and not to the accused. 

Four witnesses testified against, including Daniel Ramos of One Colorado, the state's leading advocate organization for LGBTQ Coloradans. Ramos told the committee the bill would ask taxpayers to pay for Phillips' violation of the state's non-discrimination laws when he refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. 

"We believe when a business is open to the public, they're open to all and taxpayers should not have to foot the bill for discrimination," Ramos added.

The committee voted down the bill on a party-line 6-3 decision.

It wasn't the only one that conservative Republicans lost on Tuesday. Another bill targeting the Civil Rights Commission, House Bill 1111, lost on a party-line 5-3 vote, with one Democrat absent.

The measure would require the Attorney General's office to provide annual training of at least one hour to the members of the Commission "regarding the state's obligation of religious neutrality and consistency when considering claims that involve freedom of speech or free exercise of religion."

The measure was sponsored by Republican Rep. Mark Baisley of Roxborough Park, Douglas County, who implied that the Commission is "at war" with the state's citizens.

Also citing the Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling, Baisley said the Commission showed hostility to the "sincere religious beliefs" that motivated Phillips' decision not to bake the custom cake for the same-sex couple. 

Dawn Howard of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition testified in favor of the bill, but only if it were amended to include education on disability discrimination. And while Brad Bergford, representing the conservative Commission for the Protection of Constitutional Rights, signed up to testify against it, he said the Civil Rights Commission could use far more than an hour of training.

"I've watched in horror what they've done" over the past seven years, he said, adding that it has clearly ruled against people it disagreed with while allowing those with the same ideological viewpoint off the hook.

The Commission for the Protection of Constitutional Rights is part of the right-leaning National Lawyers Association. 

And lest you think Republicans are done going after the Civil Rights Commission in 2019, think again. Republican Rep. Steve Humphrey of Ault is taking another shot at the the "Live and Let Live Act," House Bill 1140, which would allow religiously based adoption and foster-care agencies to turn away same-sex couples in adoption matters.

Humphrey ran a similar bill in 2018 that died in the House Judiciary Committee. This year's bill has been sent to the "kill" committee: State Affairs. A hearing date is not yet publicly scheduled.

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