DENVER – Colorado lawmakers on Monday killed two bills that would have allowed businesses to refuse service based on religious beliefs.
Both bills received hearings in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which is controlled by Democrats.
House Bill 1171 was killed 7-4, with Republican Rep. Dan Thurlow, of Grand Junction, joining Democrats in opposing the measure.
House Bill 1161 died on a 9-2 vote, with three Republicans joining Democrats to kill the measure, including Thurlow and Reps. Jack Tate, of Centennial, and Yeulin Willett, also of Grand Junction.
The bills would have prohibited punitive action against business owners for refusing service under religious beliefs as well as stopped the state from blocking the exercise of religion in most cases.
The debate stems from a high-profile case, after a baker in Lakewood refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of the baker’s religious beliefs.
The Colorado Civil Rights Commission said the baker violated a state law requiring that all customers be served, regardless of their sexual orientation.
“As Americans, we cherish our fundamental rights to free speech and freedom of religion,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, a co-sponsor of HB 1171. “Every American should celebrate laws that provide greater protections for our most important freedoms ... the freedom to live faithfully.
“Failing to protect freedom is a dereliction of a legislator’s most important duty.”
But business owners, faith leaders and gay-rights advocates lined up to oppose the bills. They held a news conference at the Capitol prior to the legislation being heard.
“Should our state Legislature pass the bills that are proposed today, this will open up a can of worms regarding discriminatory legal policy, and it will strangle the unprecedented economic growth that we’ve been experiencing,” said Andrew Feinstein, a managing partner at Denver-based EXDO Management, a property-management firm.
“Our focus is on attracting and retaining the top talent,” added Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “If passed, these bills would send a message that conflicts with the accepting and collaborative culture here in Colorado.”
Dave Montez, executive director of Colorado LGBT advocacy group One Colorado, added, “It aims to create a dangerous loophole for any business owner that wants to refuse service to customers because of who they are, not what they buy.”
But Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt – a Republican from Colorado Springs who sponsored HB 1161 and has raised eyebrows with anti-gay comments – said his measure worked both ways by protecting all speech.
“We’re all interested in defending not only religious freedom, but we’re all interested in also defending the pro-gay bakers and their right to opt out of being forced to comply with government’s enforcement of religion,” Klingenschmitt said.
To highlight the point, he underscored a separate case in which a man was denied service because bakers refused to include Bible verses that condemn being gay. The bakers agreed to bake the cake, but without the controversial messaging.
Bill Jack, founder of faith-based Worldview Academy, filed a civil-rights complaint after the bakery refused him full service. The case remains unresolved.
Jack believes that all business owners should be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. He submitted comments to lawmakers in support of HB 1161, stating, “This bill will restore the freedom of business owners to conduct business in accord with their conscience.
“I was refused service based on my creed,” Jack continued in the statement. “Those bakers should have the right to adhere to their consciences and deny me service ... No one should be required to produce a cake, or any product, that violates their conscience.”