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Church and state divide GOP, Democratic Colorado lawmakers

Author: Joey Bunch - April 9, 2018 - Updated: April 23, 2018

(Photo by nick1803)

Democrats and Republicans argued over two bills that mixed church and state last week at the Colorado Capitol.

Senate Bill 201 would extend an three-hour exemption from childcare licensing requirement for churches to six hours during church activities.

The bill is set for another recorded vote on the Senate floor next Thursday.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson.

Democrats had issues with the bill, saying it was so broad that it could allow a lot more than watching children while parents attend service.

Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, asked what constitutes a church under the legislation.

“If one defines themselves or their group as a church, are they exempt?” he asked. “Are there some churches that are allowed and others that are excluded?”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, said she was sympathetic to the purpose fo the bill but said lawmakers should proceed cautiously before waiving safeguards that could detect if someone tending children had been charged with child abuse or was on the sex-offender registry.

“That’s a serious thing,” Zenzinger said of background checks, “especially when you’re talking about the care of children.”

Training and emergency preparedness also would become voluntary, she said.

Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, said Senate Bill 70 shouldn’t even be necessary.

“I think the First Amendment provides an exemption, but we can have that argument another day,” he said.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, called the existing law “blatant discrimination” and said it doesn’t recognize the modern reality that lots of churches have extensive schedules beyond Sunday services. He said the three-hour limit is violated routinely.

“Are we going to shut down vacation Bible school, folks?” Gardner said on the Senate floor. “Because that’s what it seems to me like we have to do.”

Republicans have a thin majority in the upper chamber, so they should be able to get the bill over to the House, where Democrats run things.

Another church bill couldn’t get the House Democrats’ blessing last week, however.

Senate Bill 70 would have allowed churches to claim a property tax exemption on leased facilities to save on their rent. It was killed on a party-line vote before the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Neville sponsored the bill in the Senate, and it was carried in the House by Republican Reps. Tim Leonard of Evergreen and Steve Humphrey of Alt.

“I am shocked all the Democrats on this committee were unwilling to support a bill that would have put start-up churches in retail shopping centers on par with mega-churches which can afford to buy land and build their buildings,” Leonard said in a statement. “These smaller churches have to spend a big portion of their congregation’s donations paying property tax. Politics should not have been an issue in recognizing this equity disparity and the value of church charity in our communities.”

Stated Humphrey: “A church that owns a building qualifies for this exemption, but a church that leases get penalized – that isn’t equal treatment or protection under the law. I am aware of churches that pay more than $50,000 a year to a property owner for property taxes, that’s a lot of money that could otherwise be helping struggling families or people in need.”

During the hearing, opponents said they agreed there was a need for a solution, but the proposed bill was too broadly written. Reps. Jovan Melton and Mike Weissman, both of Aurora, said they would like to work on a better bill, citing how religious worship is evolving.

Weissman said the bill won’t ensure that the churches see a break on the rent because of the generous tax break.

“We need to make sure this mechanism is not abused and doesn’t do right by the intended beneficiary and doesn’t do right by the taxpayer, either,” he said.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.