Metro Weekly

Colorado GOP lawmakers withhold funding from state’s Civil Rights Commission

Advocates accuse GOP of punishing commission for siding with same-sex couple in Masterpiece Cakeshop case

Photo: Colorado State Capitol. Credit: Justin A. Wilcox/flickr.

Colorado Republicans have placed themselves under scrutiny after voting to withhold funding for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a move that Democrats and LGBTQ advocates say may be a case of political retribution.

The Commission was at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case currently being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In that case, the commission found that Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., was guilty of having discriminated against Charlie Craig and David Mullins when they sought to have a cake made for their wedding.

In refusing service to the couple, the commission found that Phillips had violated Colorado’s law prohibiting discrimination against LGBTQ people in public accommodations.

Given the prominent role the commission played in that case — which serves as a cultural flashpoint over the extent of a business owner’s “religious freedom” — it is understandable why some would believe that Republicans, who have largely supported Phillips, were punishing the commission for ruling against the baker.

But Republican members of the Joint Budget Committee argue that they are within their rights to withhold money from the commission, particularly since they aren’t sure if the commission will exist next year. The legislature is expected to debate a bill later this session over whether to renew the law that authorized the commission’s existence, reports The Denver Post.

“This is the commission who ruled against Masterpiece Cake, and now the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing that decision,” State Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) said in a Facebook post. “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, which is up for sunset review in this session.”

Rep. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale), another member of the joint committee, insists that Democrats and LGBTQ groups are making too much of the vote, noting that the issue of funding the commission is likely to be revisited this session.

“We haven’t approved it yet,” he told The Denver Post. “That’s all it really is.”

But Democrats are skeptical of those claims, particularly Sen. Dominick Moreno (D-Commerce City), who says he believes the decision to withhold funding is related to the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

“They want to limit what the [Civil Rights Division] can do,” Moreno told reporters. “The office of civil rights is there to protect everyone’s civil rights, whether it’s your sexual orientation, your race, your religion, your national origin. All of those things are protected under the office of civil rights. I don’t see how limiting any of their work benefits the people of Colorado.”

The LGBTQ advocacy organization ONE Colorado said the vote to withhold funding “sends a very disturbing message,” and called on Senate Republicans to restore the funding. The GOP currently controls the upper chamber, meaning they can block liberal initiatives or priorities, even though Democrats control the House of Representatives and the governor’s mansion.

“It is extremely troubling that Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee chose to block funding for an office that exists to protect the civil liberties of Coloradans from all walks of life,” ONE Colorado Executive Director Daniel Ramos said in a statement. “The Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Civil Rights Division has existed for decades, and it reaffirms the fundamentally American idea that all Coloradans have the right to be treated fairly and equally.”

The Human Rights Campaign was less measured in its approach, blasting Colorado Republicans for their actions and threatening a political backlash against anti-equality legislators in November’s elections.

“By voting to withhold funding from the very division responsible for upholding the state’s civil rights laws, Colorado’s GOP lawmakers are stoking the flames of discrimination against LGBTQ people, people of color, people of faith, people with disabilities and women,” JoDee Winterhof, HRC’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs, said in a statement. “This reckless action will not go unnoticed by the fair-minded majority of Colorado voters who will hold them accountable.”

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