Civil Rights Groups Resist Defunding of Anti-Discrimination Enforcement Agency

Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham says the Colorado Civil Rights Division and its commission will be funded past 2018.
Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham says the Colorado Civil Rights Division and its commission will be funded past 2018. Courtesy of Colorado Senate Republicans
If Republicans have their way, the state wouldn't protect brown, queer, foreign-born, non-Christian or disabled Coloradans from discrimination in all facets of life, from housing and employment opportunities to being denied service at a restaurant.

Republicans on the six-member Joint Budget Committee, which reviews the budgets of every state agency and puts forward the annual appropriations bill to the legislature, voted on Thursday, February 8, to withhold funding from the Colorado Civil Rights Division and its commission for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. Funding for the agency would dry up by July 1 without additional appropriations by the General Assembly. While the division investigates and enforces against discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, religion, color or marital status, the commission oversees the agency and conducts hearings.

"If the Civil Rights Division were to go away, it would mean there is no entity to investigate cases of discrimination [outside of the courtroom]," says Daniel Ramos, executive director of LGBTQ nonprofit One Colorado, adding that without the division, only those who can afford court costs and lawyers could ever afford justice.

To resist defunding efforts, a coalition of thirty civil rights organizations will rally on the west steps of the Capitol at 12:45 p.m. today, February 13. The coalition includes the ACLU of Colorado, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Good Business Colorado, One Colorado and a slew of immigrant, ethnic, faith, disability and queer rights groups.

“The fact is the Civil Rights Division needs to continue to exist, as it has for decades," the coalition said in a joint statement. "Not only does it protect Coloradans from discrimination in employment, housing, and public spaces, it promotes a more open and receptive environment in which to conduct business, live, and work. All Coloradans have the right to be treated fairly and equally. The CCRD reaffirms this fundamentally American idea. We call on leadership from both the House and Senate Majorities to come together and restore this funding for the Colorado Civil Rights Division immediately."

The defunding efforts come in the midst of the Colorado baker case before the U.S. Supreme Court, where a same-sex couple is accusing Lakewood baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop of discrimination because he refused to make a wedding cake for them. Phillips has claimed that he has the right to refuse their business based on his Christian values. Oral arguments were made in December, and a decision is expected to be made this spring. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which operates under the Civil Rights Division, took up the initial complaint and has carried the case on behalf of the same-sex couple through the appeals process.

click to enlarge Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop. - COLORADO CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY
Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cake Shop.
Colorado Christian University
Republicans stood together to withhold funding from the Civil Rights Division, claiming they wanted to wait to allocate funding until after a sunset review of the division and its commission to determine the agency's existence for the next fifteen years. The first sunset hearing for the agency will be held today, February 13, in the House Judiciary Committee. The long and winding sunset process would occur in both chambers and would require a vote in the House and Senate.

"What's important to remember is you can't defund an agency simply because you disagree with their decisions, and that's whats happening with the [Colorado] Civil Rights Division," says Representative Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City who sits on the Joint Budget Committee.

None of the Republicans on the Joint Budget committee returned calls for comment.

In a tweet, Senate GOP leadership denounced the claims that Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee are trying to defund the agency, saying that "Democrats are pulling political stunts" and that "there is no crisis."

Senate President Kevin Grantham told reporters he expects the division to exist beyond 2018. But in what form? That's uncertain. Grantham and other Republicans are keen on passing legislation that could change the makeup of the commission. Currently, appointments to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission are made by the governor. But given that the agency could be on the chopping block, the Republican-controlled Senate has the leverage it needs to twist the agency's arm to reallocate the power of appointments. (The House is dominated by Democrats, and the Senate is Republican-controlled.)

"At the end of the day, [Republicans are] holding it hostage to try and get the changes that they want. I find it baffling that they're accusing Democrats of playing political games when that's a political game to me," Moreno says. "Because the commission is up for reauthorization, it means virtually everything is on the table, including the scope of what it can investigate [and] the protected classes the [Colorado] Civil Rights Commission defends. That's whats so concerning with the move to not fund the division at this time. It seems like the only valid reason to do that is to use the funding for the agency for leverage, and to what end is pretty scary."
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Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi