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Religious exemption bills in Colorado legislature sought and failed to legalize discrimination 

Queer & There

The phrase “sincerely held religious beliefs” sends up a red flag when it appears in legislation, as it did frequently in the 2018 Colorado legislative session, which ended on May 9.

Some who have them argue that “sincerely held religious beliefs” are being attacked. Christianity has a gun to its head. The war on Christmas is the greatest threat to equal rights in America today. It’s baloney. We live in a society based on Christian morals; any challenge to the widespread adoption of those morals seems to be interpreted as a state-sponsored attack on religion.

Two religious exemption bills — which offered protections for religious organizations, institutions and individuals that would otherwise be in violation of anti-discrimination laws — sprang up this year, aiming to protect Christians from discrimination by allowing them to discriminate against others.

In February, LGBTQ Coloradans bit our nails over House Bill 1206, which suggested that anyone with “sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions” (that’s code for Christians) could deny service to people “whose conduct or religious beliefs are inconsistent [with their own]” (that’s code for queer folks). Such protections would have applied to employment, housing, health care, foster care, adoption and marriage services, to name a few.

And though it didn’t pass the House, Sen. Kevin Lundberg and Rep. Stephen Humphrey, the bill’s Republican sponsors, didn’t accept total defeat. They also sponsored Senate Bill 241, a bill to establish the “Colorado Children First Act,” which focused on the realms of adoption and child care services.

Thankfully, this bill didn’t pass the Senate, but if it had been signed into law it would have permitted religious people and institutions to prevent queer people from adopting children, fostering children, or even “performing and assisting home studies.” That’s not putting children first. Never mind that 7 percent of American youth are LGBTQ themselves, as are 40 percent of homeless youth, who need supportive LGBTQ foster parents and social workers.

Of note, Republicans, for the fourth time, shot down a statewide ban on conversion therapy for minors, which suggests protecting kids isn’t a priority. Conversion therapy has been discredited by more than 15 national medical and mental health associations, including the American Psychiatric Association.
But, of course, Christians are the ones who need anti-discrimination protections, because being “forced” to provide any services to LGBTQ people is a violation of those “sincerely held religious beliefs,” and their First Amendment rights.

This battle also affected the Republicans’ recent quest to restructure the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which is currently wrapped up in a hot-button U.S. Supreme Court case. A religious Colorado baker refused to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding reception, and the couple (rightfully, according to the commission) sued for discrimination. A decision in that case is expected this summer. (For a queer-Christian perspective on the case, see Queer & There, Jan. 10, 2018).

Republicans claimed a lack of balance on the commission panel, which is composed of seven governor-selected members. Republicans wanted more representation for businesses, and for legislators to make appointments based on party. Democrats asserted that changes were unnecessary. That tug-of-war finally reached a tense bipartisan agreement in the final hours of the legislative session, with Republicans getting the business representation they wanted, thanks to new requirements for three of the seven panel members. They compromised on most other demands.

These debates speak to a greater culture war — the same one that got Donald Trump elected. According to a recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, white, Christian and male Americans tend to think they’re losing their power and social status, and bills like these indicate that some are scrambling to regain it. If being oppressed grants you special rights (as many believe) then, by God, the white Christian men who support these bills are going to be the most oppressed of all, and pen their own anti-discrimination laws to prove it. Yes, religious discrimination exists, but does requiring a business to provide services to all people qualify? Is it even possible for those without power to discriminate against those with?

I planned to ask Sen. Lundberg and Rep. Humphrey. Neither returned my calls by press time. Perhaps a part of them recognizes that it is not their sincerely held religious beliefs under threat, but their bigotry. They do Christianity — and millions of decent Christians— no favors by conflating the two.

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