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Prepared Testimony of ACLU of Colorado Executive Director on Right-to-Discriminate Bills

March 9, 2015

DENVER – Today, the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee of the Colorado House of Representatives will hear testimony on House Bills 1161 and 1171, two “right-to-discriminate” bills that would eviscerate long-standing protections against discrimination by allowing individuals and businesses to claim their religious beliefs as an excuse to refuse to follow laws they don’t like – including domestic violence, public safety, and nondiscrimination laws.

The following is the prepared testimony of ACLU of Colorado Executive Nathan Woodliff-Stanley on HB 1161 and HB 1171:

HB 1171:

Thank you Madame Chair and members of the committee.  My name is Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, Executive Director of the ACLU of Colorado, and I speak in opposition to House Bill 1171.

This bill would tear a huge hole in the principles of equal protection under the 14th Amendment, as well as public accommodation and anti-discrimination laws in Colorado.  It would open the door to many forms of discrimination that would undermine the fabric of civil society and harm countless Colorado citizens simply because of who they are.  And it does this in the name of religious liberty, which is what I would like to address right now.

The ACLU strongly upholds the principle of religious liberty, and what that means is that you have the freedom to believe as you choose, to personally say what you believe, to worship as you choose and assemble with others to worship, and to participate in public life or run for office with no religious test, regardless of what you do or don’t believe.

What religious liberty does not mean is the “freedom” to enforce your religious beliefs or practices on other people, to use the power of government to favor or promote your religion, or to discriminate in business or the public arena against customers or employees.  The ACLU has no opposition to religion, but the religious freedom we uphold has to apply to all religions and must respect equal protection laws.  We would uphold the rights of Christians if they are denied service, denied housing or employment or medical care, or otherwise discriminated against in public accommodations simply because of who they are, just as we protect people of any religion, race or gender identity in the public arena.

Don’t be confused by the language of religious freedom in this bill—in a land of many religious perspectives, we know what real religious liberty looks like, and this isn’t it.

HB 1161:

Thank you Madame Chair and members of the committee.  My name is Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, Executive Director of the ACLU of Colorado, and I speak in opposition to House Bill 1161.

This bill is yet another that would tear apart Colorado public accommodation and nondiscrimination laws.  The ACLU of course upholds freedom of speech and expression for all persons in this nation, but the idea that businesses should be exempt from equal protection, public accommodation or nondiscrimination laws if the business is “expressive” in some manner is just a way to allow virtually any form of discrimination in nearly any business against anyone the owners don’t like.   Any form of writing, cooking, assembling, advertising, decorating, or displaying could be considered “expressive”, so it’s hard for me to think of a business that would not be allowed to discriminate under this bill.

Because of religious freedom and assembly rights, we give enormous latitude in this nation to houses of worship or genuine religious bodies, but businesses or organizations in the public arena interact with employees and customers of any or no religion and they have to abide by public laws.  We could not function as a society if businesses could discriminate against anyone they want just by saying their religion lets them do it.  That’s what this bill would allow, so I urge you to vote against it.

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