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Senate president says Colorado civil rights panel will continue, but he wants changes

February 12, 2018 Updated: February 13, 2018 at 6:16 am
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FILE - In this Jan. 11, 2017 file photo, Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, speaks to the Senate during the opening session of the 2017 Colorado Legislature at the state Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File)

Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City weighed in Monday on the controversy over the continued existence of the state Division of Civil Rights and Civil Rights Commission.

Last week, the Joint Budget Committee deadlocked 3-3 on a vote to fund the agency, which is part of the Department of Regulatory Agencies, for the 2018-19 budget year. Unless that vote is revisited, the agency would not be funded as of July 1, 2018.

Civil rights organizations, including One Colorado, as well as Democrats on the JBC and from Democratic-aligned groups reacted with outrage, claiming the vote was in retaliation for the commission's handling of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

In that lawsuit, in 2012, a same-sex couple sued the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop of Lakewood, Jack Phillips, for refusing to make a wedding cake. Phillips cited his religious objection to same-sex marriage as the reason. The commission ruled in favor of the couple as did the Colorado Court of Appeals. The Colorado Supreme Court denied a review, and Phillips appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case on Dec. 5.

Grantham blamed Democrats for playing political games with the commission. He first pointed at the JBC chair, Democratic Rep. Millie Hamner of Dillon, for refusing to table the discussion at the request of Republican Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs. That's a "common courtesy," Grantham said.

"Politics are being injected" into the issue by the Democrats on the JBC and the House Democrats, Grantham said, one that seems well-orchestrated. He denied the agency was being defunded.

Grantham told reporters in a Monday media availability that the civil rights commission "is important and will exist past the 2018 session." But Senate Republicans have concerns about the makeup of the commission - which he is addressing through separate legislation - as well as who makes the commission appointments.

"We are supportive of the commission and its existence," Grantham said. "But we will have a say in what it looks like."

The controversy over the commission dates back to last year, when Senate Republicans rejected a nomination to the commission sent by Gov. John Hickenlooper. The nominee, Heidi Hess, was the commission's only rural representative and a West Slope organizer for One Colorado, the state's leading LGBTQ advocacy group, although the commission's website had her listed as both an at-large appointee as well as accidentally listing her as a representative of small business. Republicans claimed she was anti-business.

Hess remained on the commission past the end of the session; the Hickenlooper administration said she had to remain until the governor made another appointment. The refusal to pull her off the commission (although she later resigned) led to the bill Grantham is sponsoring this session, which would make rejection of a gubernatorial appointment final.

During the fall, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a JBC member, brought up the commission during campaign appearances for his run for state treasurer. He has advocated for a change to the commission's mission. Groups supporting Phillips claim the commission is anti-Christian.

On Tuesday, One Colorado will join with the Women's Lobby of Colorado and other groups to hold a rally at 12:30 p.m. on the west steps of the state Capitol in support of the commission. A sunset review hearing for the commission and division is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in the House Judiciary Committee.

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