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Indiana's Religious-Objections Fight Recalls Colorado's Days as the "Hate State"

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This week, Mayor Michael Hancock prohibited the use of city funds for "non-essential" travel to Indiana, citing the recent religious-objections law passed in that state. Not only did that announcement raise the question of why, exactly, city officials would ever think of using Denver funds for "non-essential travel" anywhere, but it raised twenty-year-old memories of a time when groups across the country were calling for the prohibition of public funds being spent in Colorado after the passage of Amendment 2, which banned "special rights" for homosexuals — and in the process would have stripped them of basic rights.

After voters approved Amendment 2, Colorado was branded the "Hate State," and activists targeted Colorado's $5 billion tourist industry, calling for a boycott of the state. The U.S. Conference of Mayors obliged, pulling its annual meeting from Colorado Springs, which had been slated for June 1993.

There was trouble here at home, too. "Amendment 2 was a very big deal," remembers then-Denver mayor Wellington Webb. Both he and then-governor Roy Romer had to head downtown one day to calm a protest by GLBT activists, trying to get them off the 16th Street Mall and avoid the destruction of property. Webb spoke with the protesters at the Adam's Mark Hotel (now the Sheraton), and asked why they thought "civil rights come this quick and this easy," he recalls. "The Civil War ended in 1865, and we’re still fighting those same battles.” For his part, as a legislator, Webb and Jack McCroskey had introduced the first gay-rights bills in the Colorado Legislature in 1975. "Needless to say, all four died a quick death," Webb says, recalling headlines about "homosexual bills."

Denver residents had voted overwhelmingly against Amendment 2, and Webb soon set off on a national tour to remind the country of this. In New York City, he recalls, "a police officer and I were chased by the Lesbian Avengers" on their way to then-mayor David Dinkins's office, where Webb asked Dinkins not to condemn Denver, "because everyone in Denver voted against it.... It demonstrated that Denver was a lot different than the rest of the state in terms of its views." From there, Webb went on to numerous interviews, including an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show.

Webb's campaign did prevent some groups from boycotting Denver, but it did not convince the New York Times, which editorialized: "Webb, a longtime supporter of gay rights who opposes the boycott, pleads that Colorado is merely the first 'casualty' of a broader assault by the Christian right. He warns that the clever stealth strategy used in Colorado — depicting basic anti-discrimination protections for homosexuals in housing and employment as unjustified 'special rights' — is likely to have even greater appeal in other states with less tolerant traditions. It's easy to sympathize with Mr. Webb's plight. But a successful boycott could help reverse the tide. The boycott is a legitimate weapon in a democratic society and, historically, one of the most effective."

Amendment 2 was ultimately declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We never enforced Amendment 2 in the City and County of Denver,” Webb remembers. In fact, two of the  plaintiffs in the case that ultimately went to the Supreme Court were his employees.

So what advice would Webb give Greg Ballard, the mayor of Indianapolis, regarding the current campaign to boycott that state? Webb says he hasn't gotten any calls, but Ballard "is a good person," he says. "He needs to demonstrate that Indianapolis is quite a different place."

That's if efforts in Indiana to alter the law — and public perception — are unsuccessful. In approving revisions yesterday, Governor Mike Pence, a Republican, issued a statement that said, in part: "However we got here, we are where we are, and it is important that our state take action to address the concerns that have been raised and move forward."

At the moment, a small-town pizzeria that refused to cater a same-sex wedding is the major front in the Indiana fight. As for that so-called Christian pizza joint, Webb says, “My response is always, 'God made everybody.'”

For the record, Hancock spokeswoman Amber Miller says the City of Denver has no "essential travel" planned for Indianapolis right now — much less non-essential travel. Here's the text of the March 31 announcement from Hancock's office:

Mayor Hancock Issues Prohibition on Use of City Funds for Non-Essential Travel to Indiana

DENVER – Mayor Michael B. Hancock today announced a prohibition on the use of city funds for non-essential travel by all city employees on official business to the State of Indiana.

“Denver is an inclusive city, and we take tremendous pride in that,” Mayor Hancock said. “Due to the actions taken by the State of Indiana, we will join with other cities across the nation in suspending the use of city funds for official business to Indiana. This law is just wrong, plain and simple, and we will not tacitly condone discrimination through the use of taxpayer dollars.

“I stand with my friend Mayor Ballard of Indianapolis and all the business owners and residents of Indiana who are fighting for equality. Together, we call on Gov. Pence and the Indiana General Assembly to repeal this discriminatory act. We have come far as a nation in extending liberty and justice for all, but this law threatens to undermine that progress with unnecessary and unwarranted divisiveness.

“Should the state of Indiana persist down the path of discrimination, we would like the Indiana businesses to know that they are welcome here in Denver, Colorado, and embraced by our forward thinking community and workforce.”

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