Civil Rights Archives - Colorado Politics

Marianne GoodlandMarianne GoodlandFebruary 7, 201810min3470

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission has two big challenges this year. One is a decision from a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court that some experts believe will overturn the commission’s ruling on a discrimination case. The second might be bigger: just keeping their authority to continue.

The Civil Rights Commission and the civil rights division within the Department of Regulatory Agencies are both up for a sunset review in the 2018 legislative session. At least one prominent Senate Republican is hoping to see changes in the commission’s appointment structure and to make the work of the commission and division more transparent.

Civil Rights Division director Aubrey Elenis declined an opportunity to comment for this story.

A sunset review means the agency must seek reauthorization from the General Assembly, frequently every five years or so. The Civil Rights Division conducts investigations and decides complaints involving discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.  The commission does the rule-making, reviews appeals on cases dismissed by the Civil Rights Division, decides whether to hold hearings on cases for which there is probable cause, directs the division to investigate discrimination cases “and advises the Governor and the General Assembly on civil rights issues,” according to an October 2017 review.

The Department of Regulatory Agencies’ Office of Policy, Research & Regulatory Reform (OPRR) conducts the review of a state agency to determine if it’s fulfilling its mission as set by state law. The OPRR review of the civil rights commission recommended the division and the commission continue for another nine years, until 2027, when it would be up for review again.

The review said that in 2015-16, the Civil Rights Division received 989 complaints; mediated 114 of those complaints and settled 69 cases. In that same year, the commission reviewed 88 appeals and remanded one case back to the division for further investigation. The cost to the state for both the division and the commission is approximately $2.5 million, including $438,000 in federal funds.

The sunset review comes at the same time that the commission is dealing with the highest profile legal case in its history: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. That case began when the owner of the Lakewood-based Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The commission ruled in favor of the same-sex couple who made the complaint. Bakery owner Jack Phillips, backed by the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, has continued to challenge the commission’s decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court heard oral arguments in the case in December; a ruling is expected sometime this spring. Some experts have opined that the commission could be on the losing end, based in part on comments by Justice Anthony Kennedy during the Dec. 5, 2017, hearing that the commission is hostile to religion.

The Civil Rights Commission is also the trigger for a bill that is at the heart of a dispute between Senate Republicans and Gov. John Hickenlooper, over his authority to make appointments to boards and commissions and the Senate’s authority to reject them. Senate Bill 43 will be heard Wednesday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Commissioners on the civil rights board are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate to serve four-year terms. But last year, Hickenlooper’s nomination of Heidi Hess, who at the time was the commission’s chair , was rejected by the Senate on a party-line vote, according to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.

Hess, of Clifton and the only rural representative on the commission, was appointed to the board in 2013 and is a Western Slope organizer for the LGBT organization One Colorado. She was appointed as an at-large representative, but the commission’s website had her listed both as at-large and as a representative of small business. Hess has never owned a small business, and that drew the ire of Senate Republicans, who claimed she had advocated against business interests, the Daily Sentinel reported.

*Hess remained on the commission after the session was over, given that the constitution requires an appointee remain on the body until their replacement is named. In Hess’s case, she had already been on the commission since 2013 and was technically her own replacement. She later resigned and the governor’s office continues to accept applications for her replacement.

But her continued presence on the commission prompted Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City to draw up a bill that would make it clear that once the Senate has rejected an appointment, the governor cannot go back and re-appoint that person.

In most states, Grantham told reporters last month, once rejected, a person cannot continue to serve, But he said the governor’s counsel had said the language in the constitution about appointments is unclear. “I think that’s wrong,” Grantham said. “The intent is clear.”

Senate Bill 43 faces an uncertain future, should it reach the Democratic-controlled House. “This shouldn’t be a D or R issue,” Grantham said. The rules should be clear, he added; if a person is rejected they shouldn’t serve. The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs green-lighted the bill Wednesday.

At the same time, a bill to reauthorize the commission and the division is expected any day in the House, and will be sponsored by Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver.

The first step in reauthorizing a commission in the sunset process is a hearing. The House is moving through sunset reviews this week but has not yet scheduled the hearing for the civil rights commission and division.

Once the bill to reauthorize the commission and division makes it to the Senate, at least one prominent Republican is gunning for an opportunity to make changes. Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling led the fight three years ago over reauthorizing the Office of Consumer Counsel. That led to a late-session stalemate in 2015, and in the end the consumer counsel lost its authority over consumer telecommunications issues in exchange for its continued existence.

This year isn’t quite that fight all over again, Sonnenberg indicated, but he does have ideas about how appointments should be made for the seven-member civil rights commission. He said the governor should not be the only person to appoint members to the board, and suggested that the majority and minority leaders of each chamber could also make some of those appointments.

Sonnenberg also believes the commission has a transparency problem that should be addressed in this year’s bill. “When you have letters submitted to the commission to help them makes decisions, and no one can see those letters, that’s a problem,” he said.

Duran told Colorado Politics that “reauthorizing the Colorado Civil Rights Division and Commission is critical to ensuring that the people of our state are protected against hate and discrimination. We are a nation built on the principles of fairness and equality and must continue to strive to expand opportunities for all.”


Correction: Due to incorrect information from a source, a previous version said the governor reappointed Hess to the commission after the 2017 session ended.


Adam McCoyAdam McCoyOctober 24, 20172min2650

Denver has garnered high marks last week for its devotion to the LGBTQ community.

The Human Rights Campaign recognized the Mile High City with a perfect score — the first city to earn the recognition in Colorado — on the LGBTQ civil rights organization’s 2017 Municipal Equality Index.

According to the group’s website, “the Municipal Equality Index examines how inclusive municipal laws, policies, and services are of LGBTQ people who live and work there.” More than 500 municipalities in all 50 states were studied and rated on 44 different criteria in this year’s index.

Denver was one of just 68 municipalities to achieve a perfect core.

“In Denver, we stand firmly for the ideals of inclusion, acceptance and opportunity. These are our values,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in a statement. “We will continue to keep Denver a city that is welcoming to all by standing together against hate and never allowing it to divide our city. We have worked hard to achieve this score, and I’m grateful to the members of my LGBTQ Commission for leading the way.”

The index report applauded Denver as a success story, commending the city and its LGBTQ Comission for its pro-LGBTQ actions including amending its building code to mandate non-gendered signage for single-stall and family bathrooms and appointing a police department liaison for the LGBTQ community.

“The commission has been working on our ‘Pathway to 100’ plan since 2015, and we are honored to receive this recognition,” Leah Pryor-Lease, chair of the LGBTQ Commission, said in a statement. “This achievement is the result of a great deal of hard work, thoughtful partnership and strong leadership from stakeholders across the city.”


Joey BunchJoey BunchSeptember 3, 20175min5700

Fans of the state’s history in flight can pay tribute to a pilot from Denver pilot who broke racial barriers, the late Marlon Green, at a banquet next month.

Green won a landmark Supreme Court case that allowed African-Americans to be airline pilots. He died in 2009 at age 80. The Colorado Aviation Historical Society will posthumously induct Green into its hall of fame Oct. 14 at Lakewood Country Club.

The society will also present a special award to a group of Coloradans who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force during World War II. The organization will also recognize its Wright Brothers 50-year Master Pilots.

An Air Force veteran who lived in Denver, Green sued Continental Airlines in 1957. The airline invited him to take its flight test after he failed to note his race on the application. After he passed, the airline refused to hire him, while taking white Air Force pilots with less experience.

With the support of then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Green fought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won a unanimous decision, in 1963.

He was still kept from becoming the nation’s first black commercial airline pilot, however. Instead, American Airlines hired David Harris, in 1964, a few months before Green was hired by Continental in 1965, eight years after he first applied. He flew for Continental Airlines until 1978.

In 2007, The Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum called Green the “Jackie Robinson of Aviation.” In 2009 author Flint Whitlock published the book “Turbulence Before Takeoff: The Life & Times of Aviation Pioner Marlon Dewitt Green.”

In 2010, Continental Airlines named a 737 in Green’s honor.

Tickets are $45 each for the event from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. that Saturday. Those who would like to attend should contact banquet chairman Dave Kempa at 303-521-6761 or

Colorado’s rich history in flight is reflected in its museums, as well as military installations and private employers. Aviation in today supports 265,000 jobs, according to a 2015 report by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

In its last session, the legislature exempted sales taxes on historical aircraft used in public displays at least 20 hours a week, partly as a tribute and partly to encourage public education and the preservation of history.

House Bill 1103 was sponsored by Reps. Dan Nordberg, R-Col0rado Springs, and Dan Pabon, D-Denver, with Sens. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City.

The bill notes that The Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum is located in the Lowry neighborhood of Denver has more than 50 historical aircraft on display, about half of which are on local from private owners

Legislative analysts also cited historical aircraft at the National Museum of World War II Aviation in Colorado Springs and the Pueblo Weisbrod Aircraft Museum.


Erin PraterErin PraterAugust 7, 201713min2171

Roger Gannam cites the Bible to define his company’s mission.

That wouldn’t be notable if he worked at a church or food kitchen. But Gannam works at a law firm, suing others and representing those who have been sued.

His employer, Liberty Counsel, advocates for conservative Christian interests in cases related to the sanctity of life, family values and religious liberty.

“We seek to help Christians avail themselves of their First Amendment rights to live out a Christian life the way they want to live it,”said Gannam, assistant vice president of legal affairs for the Orlando, Florida, firm.

Liberty Counsel is part of the Christian legal movement, a collection of advocacy groups working in the legal, public policy and public relations arenas to advance and protect conservative Christian moral values.

Together, these firms have turned the courts into key battlefields in the culture wars, as will be on display this fall, when Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is argued before the Supreme Court.

The potentially far-reaching case asks what should win when the conscience rights of small-business owners who object to same-sex marriage clash with civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the most prominent organization in the Christian legal movement, represents Masterpiece Cakeshop, but other Christian firms will be involved in the case as well, offering input on arguments or filing briefs in support of the Christian baker. These groups compete for donations and clients, while recognizing that they’re chasing after the same goals.

“There’s plenty of work to go around,” Gannam said. “I think we are co-laborers. We are partners.”

Their shared commitment to splashy media campaigns and aggressive legal tactics have troubled some who work at the intersection of law and religion. Debates over religious freedom are more contentious now than they were in the past, and these organizations may help explain why.

“I think that many of these organizations do overreach, do make implausible claims, and do discredit the cause (of religious freedom) when they do so,” said Douglas Laycock, a religious freedom expert and law professor at the University of Virginia.


Coordinated response
Coordination within the Christian legal movement is most visible in lists of amicus briefs, or the legal documents filed by subject matter experts in support of one side’s arguments.

For example, the American Center for Law and Justice and Liberty Counsel both filed briefs in support of Alliance Defending Freedom’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer, this year’s high-profile religious freedom ruling dealing with whether churches can take part in public grant programs.

“They’ll coordinate with other organizations,” in terms of how briefs are written, said Daniel Bennett, author of the new book, “Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement.”

These groups aren’t reinventing the wheel. They’re borrowing strategies from other legal movements and using court rulings to influence lawmaking, he added.

“Folks that don’t have the representation in the legislative branch to defend their interests” turn to the courts for help, said Bennett, who is an assistant professor of political science at John Brown University, a Christian school in Arkansas.

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, helped spark the Christian legal movement, awakening conservative Christian leaders to the idea that they were losing political and cultural clout.

Within 10 years of that ruling, the first Christian legal interest group, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, was formed.

That first group is one of 10 Christian conservative legal organizations featured in Bennett’s book. These firms protect their religious values through the court system, using cases like the Moral Majority used candidates.

“I define ‘Christian conservative legal organization’ as a multi-issue organization dedicated to the interests of Christian conservatives primarily through legal advocacy, including litigation and public education,” Bennett said.

His definition excludes Becket Law, the high-profile firm behind many religious freedom cases, because it’s focused solely on religious liberty issues. Other interest groups, such as Concerned Women for America, are also left off the list, because legal advocacy is not their primary mission.

The growth and success of Christian conservative legal organizations has earned them some enemies, especially at a time when religious freedom protections increasingly clash with LGBT rights.

Three Christian conservative law firms — Alliance Defending Freedom, Pacific Justice Institute and Liberty Counsel — appear on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups because of their “anti-LGBT” positions.

“There used to be broad, bipartisan support for religious liberty. That has sort of melted away now,” said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel for First Liberty Institute.

Alliance Defending Freedom did not respond to multiple interview requests.

By pairing religious freedom law with their moral agenda, Christian conservative legal organizations have hurt religious liberty’s reputation, Laycock said.

“A claim that abortion or same-sex marriage should be illegal for everybody is not a religious liberty claim. It is a claim that conservative Christian morality should be imposed by law on everyone else,” he said.

However, linking cases with moral concerns is a powerful political and fundraising strategy. When selecting cases, the firms consider whether an issue will play well in the press and catch the attention of potential donors, Bennett said.

“They’re looking for cases that set a precedent and earn them a little money in terms of fundraising,” he said. The groups profiled in “Defending Faith” bring in anywhere from $300,000 to $48.3 million in annual revenue, according to Bennett’s research.

Gannam resists the notion that faith-based legal activism harms non-Christian Americans.

“We are distinctively Christian, but the religious liberties we secure and vindicate are for everyone, not just for Christians,” Gannam said.


Beyond the courtroom
The drawback of tapping into the power of the courts is that most lawsuits are all-or-nothing propositions, Bennett said.

“The courts can be good when you’re winning, but really, really bad when you’re losing,” he said.

Christian conservative legal organizations mitigate the risks of losing by proposing legislation, organizing educational conferences and training supporters to effectively interact with the media.

“They’re trying to coordinate grass-roots mobilization, media advocacy and litigation,” said Amanda Hollis-Brusky, co-author of a forthcoming book on law schools that feed the Christian legal movement.

Gannam actually began his religious freedom-related litigation work by attending a training program hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom. At the time, he was a commercial litigator focused on business transactions, but exposure to the Christian legal movement changed his course.

“I had to work at the traditional practice of law and make money so I could support my religious liberty habit,” he said.

He joined the Liberty Counsel staff three years ago, diving into full-time religion-related advocacy.

The organization looks for opportunities to influence the direction of the law, through relationships with lawmakers.

“We have a dedicated lawyer in D.C. who heads up our public policy arm. He spends all of his time meeting with legislators and other policy organizations trying to think through and articulate appropriate policy goals and sometimes offering model legislation,” Gannam said.

Through similar initiatives at the state level, Christian conservative legal organizations have emerged as key opponents of so-called “fairness for all” bills, which seek to balance religious liberty with LGBT non-discrimination protections.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, director of the family law and policy program at the University of Illinois College of Law, has helped draft these compromise bills in multiple states, often running into members of the Christian legal movement in the process.

“I think it is fair to say they are moving heaven and earth in the states to make protecting gay rights look like it always comes at the expense of religious persons and communities,” she said.

Liberty Counsel leaders believe the “fairness for all” concept offers a weak return for people of faith compared to what’s given to members of the LGBT community, Gannam said.

Although court cases continue to represent the core of these organizations’ work, political activism and community outreach may become more valuable in the future, as religion-related debates expand and evolve, Sasser said.


Taking the long view
At first, the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage seemed like a lethal blow to Christian conservative legal organizations. They’d spent years opposing gay marriage, but it still became the law of the land.

In reality, the outcome ushered in new varieties of religious freedom cases, allowing these firms to reshape their public image, focusing on their support of personal liberties rather than their opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Rebranding comes with its own set of challenges. Religious freedom protections are increasingly portrayed as a “license to discriminate.”

Younger Americans, in particular, seem to be wary of conscience rights. In a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, 1 in 4 Americans ages 18 to 29 favored allowing small-business owners to refuse to provide products or services to the LGBT community for religious reasons, compared to one-third of Americans ages 30 to 64 and 43 percent of Americans older than 65.

First Liberty has responded to the contentious religious liberty climate by working to diversify its clientele, Sasser said, noting that judges and Americans in general are more responsive to the needs of minority faith groups.

“I worry that there are judges who would be sympathetic to protecting a Hindu temple or synagogue or mosque, but maybe wouldn’t worry about a zoning case against a church,” he said.

The key is for Liberty Counsel and other Christian conservative legal organizations to stay committed to making a difference in the long-term, Gannam said.

“As a Christian organization, we draw comfort and encouragement from the Scripture: Do not grow weary of doing good,” he said. “Our mission doesn’t allow us to get tired of trying, even if there are short-term setbacks.”

Joey BunchJoey BunchNovember 23, 20162min87
Denver District Attorney-elect Beth McCann and state Rep.-elect Leslie Herod say it’s time to have a talk about civil rights. “This is a time when many in our community are fearful and uncertain about the future,” McCann said. “We want to provide an opportunity for folks to come together and discuss these issues with those […]

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