Much ado about ‘cake’ in political battle for civil unions in Colorado

Much ado about ‘cake’ in political battle for civil unions in Colorado

Colorado’s Religious Right is in the midst of a cakewalk. The prize? To find a political message that sticks with the state’s most sought-after, sometimes real, sometimes mythical unaffiliated “swing” voter with a Western-libertarian streak.

In the not so distant past, the modus operandi was “protect the children.”

But LGBT-rights groups – including One Colorado, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization – flipped the script on the likes of Focus on the Family and subsidiaries CitizenLink and Colorado Family Action by reminding anyone and everyone who would listen: It’s the Colorado Civil Union Act, in fact, that would protect the children, by “providing critical legal protections to same-sex couples and their families.”

Openly gay Sen. Pat Steadman at a rally supporting Civil Unions at the Capitol in Denver in 2012.
File photo: Ed Andrieski, Associated Press

“The other side has lost so many battles, they’re desperate for a win. I wouldn’t put anything past them,” said Steve Roth of Equality California.

Now those “pro-family” organizations, once for the children, are now standing up for a different group – cake bakers.

“The so-called religious protections put forth in the proposed legislation are not only inadequate, but the extreme narrowness of those protections suggests intent to legislate prejudice toward individuals who possess deeply-held religious beliefs about sexual unions or marriage,” said Kellie Fiedorek, a representative for Alliance Defending Freedom at a Jan. 23 Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a bill that would establish civil unions in Colorado.

Her objection, in other words: The Colorado Civil Union Act violates freedom of religion because the services of wedding planners, florists and therapists across the state will be sought for civil union ceremonies, forced to participate in the recognition of love between two people of the same sex.

“Contrary to your assertions in front of this body, there are significant ramifications for the Colorado Lakewood baker,” Nicolle H. Martin, a lawyer representing Colorado Family Action said at the hearing.

The committee OK’d the bill sponsored by out gay lawmakers state Sen. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman, both Denver Democrats, on a party-line vote. As of press time, the bill had cleared a second committee and had not been scheduled for it’s next step in the legislative process: a debate by the full state Senate.

The bill is expected to clear all of its legislative tests, be signed by the governor in early spring and allow the first civil unions to begin May 1.

But back to Martin: she was referring to another one of her clients, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, who refused service to a gay couple planning their destination wedding in Massachusetts.

Dave Mullins and Charlie Craig filed written complaints with the state, alleging Phillips violated the state’s existing nondiscrimination law for public accommodations.

“He’s under investigation, right now,” Martin continued. “He is faced with two fines … and, incredibly, he’s faced with jail.”

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Objection. The bill’s sponsor, Steadman, a lawyer by trade, corrected Martin. Jail time is only a remedy if a prosecutor brings someone up on criminal charges. Phillips won’t be working the Jefferson County Detention Facility cafeteria for this alleged offense.

Acting-chairman of the committee, openly gay state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, turned Martin’s testimony upside down: not only is discrimination based upon sexual orientation already illegal, but the law is working and providing remedies for people who have been discriminated against.

“To that, we need to say that issue is settled – and let them eat cake,” Ulibarri said.

Others continued to raise concerns at the hearing, including one representative from Catholic Charities, a nonprofit backed by the Catholic Church that among other things places children in adoptive homes. In previous versions of the bill, Catholic Charities would have been able to reject applications from same-sex couples. The 2013 version of the Civil Union Act does not provide religious exemptions for any person except clergy.

Steadman argued the religious nonprofit fought the bill last year even with the provisions in it. So why bother compromising principle by including them again?

In his closing statements, Steadman pivoted from his sharp legal mind to his heartstrings.

“For me, this bill is about love,” Steadman said. “Let’s craft this bill in fashion that does the most good as possible, that offers full inclusion and equality to all of the citizens of this state. This bill doesn’t do harm. This bill protects. This bill invites people to take personal responsibility for themselves, their loved ones and their estates, their children, their property. Let loving couples live their lives and play by the same sets of rules as everyone else.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

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