DENVER – Democratic lawmakers in Colorado are pushing their state off a "moral cliff" with a civil union bill that puts the state on record as opposing religious liberty, according to critics.
The proposal is an attempt to maneuver around the state constitution, which defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, the critics charge.
"We just hurled the state of Colorado over a moral cliff. This is a major step toward seriously eroding the practice and the concept of marriage in Colorado and the family," said state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, one of the two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee who voted against the bill.
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Lundberg said the bill proposed this year is "even more striking than last year in that they refused an amendment I put up that would exempt private child placement agencies from being impacted by this law."
"The Democrats refused, saying anyone who is going to place a child in foster care or adoption situations in Colorado cannot refuse a same-sex couple because of moral or religious convictions," he continued. "They must comply with this force of law."
Kelly Fiedorek, an attorney with one of the largest civil and religious rights defense organizations in the nation, the Alliance Defending Freedom, warned the state is on thin ice.
"It's important for all Colorado citizens to notice that this bill fails to protect religious freedom, which is a constitutionally protected right that is one of our first liberties," Fiedorek said.
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Fiedorek testified this week before the Colorado state Senate Judiciary Committee against Senate Bill 13-011, which would legalize civil unions.
Despite the states' constitutional definition of marriage, the committee approved the plan anyway in response to lobbying by Gov. John Hickenlooper and "gay" activists.
Supporters of the bill say it simply provides legal protections for same-sex couples to enter into contractual arrangements and will not infringe on the religious rights of anyone in the state. They point to a section in the bill stating that no priest, minister, rabbi or other official of a religious institution is required to certify a civil union in violation of their right to free exercise of religion.
However, Fiedorek says the religious exemption is so narrowly tailored it leaves vast numbers of Coloradans with no protection of their religious rights.
"This bill as currently drafted fails to protect the religious rights of conscience for Christians who are not official ministers of their church. Religious liberty is not confined to the four walls of the church but extends to everybody."
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Another concern is the bill affords no protections for wedding-venue owners, clerks and recorders, bed-and-breakfast establishments, bakeries, photographers, caterers, deejays and others who may be forced to violate their consciences and actively participate in same-sex ceremonies.
Fiedorek cited the case of Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Bake Shop in Lakewood, Colo., who is facing discrimination charges after he refused to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple even though the civil union bill has not become law.
"It's important that all residents be able to live according to the dictates of their conscience," she said. "He didn't refuse service to this couple because of their sexual orientation, his refusal was based solely on his religious beliefs as to what constitutes marriage and he is now being persecuted for those beliefs."
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Hickenlooper and Democratic lawmakers attempted to pass the bill in the last legislative session but failed when Republican lawmakers essentially ran out the clock. WND reported Hickenlooper then called the legislature back into a special session in an attempt to pass the bill but failed again. This year, Democrats control both the state House and Senate chambers, so the bill is expected to pass handily.
Fiedorek argued the measure compels citizens to violate their conscience.
"You can't compel speech," he said. "For example it would be unfair to ask an African-American photographer to shoot a wedding where the wedding party wore white robes of the KKK. He has the right to not use his artistic abilities as a photographer in a way that compromises his deeply held beliefs. The same standard applies to a person who believes marriage is between a man and woman."
Colorado business owners have already been forced to surrender some rights after the previous governor signed legislation eliminating gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms.
In 2008, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter signed "emergency legislation" that allows men to freely use women's restrooms and locker rooms by simply asserting they are transgendered.
The bill states business owners and managers of restaurants, gyms, barber shops, massage parlors and public facilities "of any kind whether indoor or outdoor" cannot deny a person employment or access to a facility based on gender identity or the "perception" of gender.
It defines sexual orientation as a person's orientation toward heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, or transgender status or "another person's perception thereof."
WND has reported similar cases in which individuals and companies were told their First Amendment rights did not apply with respect to sexual orientation.
- A Christian couple in New Mexico was fined nearly $7,000 and told by a judge that states had the right to force Christians to violate their faith as a condition of doing business. The couple had refused to photograph a lesbian "commitment ceremony." The judge said the couple's religious rights were not violated because they could choose to vocally condemn the women while taking pictures during the ceremony.
- Hands On Originals was investigated by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Human Rights Commission for refusing to print a T-shirt promoting a local "gay" pride event. The head of the commission told WND that while a "gay" printing company had the right to refuse to print literature critical of the "gay" lifestyle, the same protections do not necessarily extend to Christians.
Fiedorek said cases such as these highlight the need to ensure that everyone has protection for their religious liberties, not just members of the clergy.
"One point that is important to recognize is that the religious protections in the bill are not only inadequate and fail to protect the people of Colorado, but the extreme narrowness of those protections is prejudiced towards those who have deeply held religious beliefs about marriage."
State Sen. Lundberg told Democrats it was hypocritical for them to refuse religious exemptions when their own bill has discrimination written into it.
"When I was calling for the exemption for child placement organizations, Sen. Pat Steadman who sponsored the bill said no to the amendment because that would be allowing discrimination to occur and he was not going to do that," Lundberg said. "I pointed out to him the bill itself has discrimination written into it by saying that two sisters or close relatives can't be a part of a civil union. However, it's quite clear that they're simply saying it's my way or the highway in that respect."
Fiedorek asserted that guaranteeing religious protections for individuals will not have a detrimental effect on the ability of same-sex couples to obtain service in states with civil unions or same-sex marriages.
"In every jurisdiction that has passed civil unions and same-sex marriage laws these couples are finding individuals and organizations who are willing to solemnize and certify their unions and celebrate with them," she said. "They are not having any problems in finding people to assist them and yet they are proposing legislation that does not protect everybody. We need to protect everyone, not just a select few."
Lundberg takes issue with those who claim the civil union bill is a reasonable attempt at compromise because it does not permit "gay" marriage.
"They insist that this is legislation does not equal marriage because the Colorado constitution says marriage is between one man and one woman, but the reality is this bill is a mirror image of marriage in Colorado law," he explained. "It's a very comprehensive piece of legislation that affects every area of Colorado law that makes a civil union as identical to marriage as possible within existing Colorado statutes."
Although the bill exempts members of the clergy from having to perform same-sex ceremonies, there is a loophole in the exemption that could prove problematic. The bill does not specifically prevent the government from penalizing, withholding benefits from or refusing to contract with clergy, religious organizations or institutions that adhere to deeply held religious beliefs about sexual unions.
While clergy could refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies, they might not be able to prevent "gay" couples from using their facilities for ceremonies conducted by someone else.
Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel noted that after Hawaii passed a civil union bill that contained a religious exemption with language similar to Colorado's bill, complaints were then brought against churches to the Hawaiian Human Rights Commission over their refusal to allow civil-union ceremonies.
Barber said the property loophole is an issue that legislators need to address and they should pass legislation clarifying the religious exemption applies to religious property as well.
Could churches in Colorado be forced to allow same-sex couples to use their facilities based on the language in the civil union law?
"Absolutely,"Barber said. "That's the nature of the homosexual activist lobby; they like to use the legal system to force their radical agenda on the rest of us."
Barber said the issue "is whether the anti-discrimination laws would be triggered if [someone] were to refuse to rent a facility to a same-sex couple."
"The laws provide an exemption for ministers to refuse to perform the ceremonies, but there is no property exemption," he said.
Barber said the domestic partner law, as worded, "puts churches in the crosshairs if they refuse to rent to a same-sex couple."
"Domestic partnerships are basically marriages in everything but name, and for many religious institutions it violates their deeply held beliefs," Barber said. "Churches and other religious facilities should have a First Amendment right to use their property and open it up for whomever they see fit when we are talking about behaviors such as homosexuality which is contrary to the Bible."
Barber said the homosexual lobby is attempting to use civil union laws to get a foot in the door and ultimately require churches to perform same-sex ceremonies.
"This isn’t about same-sex couples having the right to marry," he said. 'It is about denigrating marriage and forcing the church to renounce its biblical position on sexual behavior under penalty of law."
Lundberg also noted that supporters are being dishonest by claiming that civil union bills are a way to find compromise and common ground among people who have a disagreement over the issue.
"They will never be satisfied with a civil union," he said. "What they want is the right to the word marriage. During the last session I asked Steadman if this bill would satisfy him. He said, 'No, if I can get same-sex marriage passed, I will go for that.'"