GOP Seizes On SCOTUS’ Masterpiece Rebuke Of Colorado Civil Rights Commission

June 4, 2018
Photo: Masterpiece SCOTUS 7 | Jack Phillips In Cakeshop - AP
Baker Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, right, manages his shop Monday, June 4, 2018, in Lakewood, Colo. 

The biggest loser in Monday’s Masterpiece Cakes v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission decision is not the couple at the center of the case, and certainly not baker Jack Phillips, but the Colorado Civil Rights Commission itself. While Phillips started his week with a narrow victory in the case, his success hinged on a damning 7-2 ruling which accused the commission of failing to treat Phillip’s religion with the neutrality required by the Constitution.

The Commission was already having a tumultuous 2018, finding itself at the heart of one of the most contentious political fights of the legislative session. Republicans in the state Senate pushed for changes by holding up commission funding.

Republican Colorado Senate President Kevin Grantham spared no words in his statement reacting to what the Supreme Court had to say about the commission.

“This ruling stands as a clear and humbling rebuke to all those, inside and outside the Statehouse, who took the position this last session that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission can do no wrong, and that it always acts within appropriate legal and constitutional boundaries,” he said. “It clearly does not.”

In his statement, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper said Colorado will “take seriously the Court’s admonition that the state must apply its laws and regulations in a manner that is neutral toward religion. We have no doubt that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission will meet that standard as they listen, respectfully, to all sides of the matters that come before it and issue decisions that uphold the protections afforded under Colorado law.”

Many in the GOP disagreed with how the commission handled the original complaint against Masterpiece Cakeshop and called for checks on the governor’s power to appoint commissioners and greater transparency when it came to proceedings. They also wanted to give those who are the subject of complaints — like Phillips himself — the ability to opt for a jury trial.

In the end, a compromise bill passed, one that Republicans felt failed to address their concerns.

“It was nothing,” said Republican state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, one of the leaders of the effort to reform the CRC. The legislation that ended up passing required that the governor appoint three Democrats, three Republicans and one representative from the business community.

“The compromise did not accomplish anything,” Lundberg said. “It still gave the governor full prerogative over who he puts on the commission.”

The Masterpiece ruling may now stoke desire for further reforms. Lundberg sees the compromise as “an opportunity that the legislature and the governor completely fumbled on this year.”

He’s also not the only one feeling vindicated by this decision.

“During the legislative session, I struggled to restore balance to the Civil Rights Commission and ensure that it would not be captured by a viewpoint that favors one set of protected rights over another,” said fellow Republican Sen. Bob Gardner in a statement. “This is the very reason I worked last session to restore balance and accountability to the Civil Rights Commission. While some believed the legislation achieved that, I did not and voted against the reauthorization of an unaccountable commission.”

Other conservatives also joined in to pile criticism on the commission and many conservative lawmakers took to Twitter to call for further reforms.

Jeff Hunt, President of the Centennial Institute, accused Democrats of brandishing “the Colorado Civil Rights Commission as a sword to go after people of faith.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar, who is also a candidate for Attorney General in November, was a defender of the CRC during the legislative session. Long before the Masterpiece case he was also a commission investigator. He disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling and is concerned about the reactions from his conservative colleagues.

“Let’s remember that no Supreme Court decision is a narrow decision,” he said. “I think it set a dangerous precedent today that the court is going to have to refine in the future when other cases come before it. But while those other cases come before it, how many individuals, how many couples, how many groups of individuals will have been discriminated against up until that point because of this decision?”

The Masterpiece case was eagerly anticipated as, variously, a potentially strong statement about the rights of LGBT people or the court’s first ruling carving out exceptions to an anti-discrimination law. In the end, the court did not decide the big question of the case, whether a business can claim religious objections to refuse service to gay and lesbian people.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said in his majority opinion that the larger issue “must await further elaboration” in the courts. Appeals in similar cases are pending, including one at the Supreme Court from a florist who didn’t want to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

When it comes to the majority opinion, which criticized commissioners who mentioned the Holocaust or slavery while deciding the case, Salazar said they were doing their job.

“I didn’t see any problems with it, because the Civil Rights Commission is there as our experts on civil rights matters,” he said. “What many of the commissioners talked about was the history of discrimination, and how religion has been used to discriminate against certain groups of individuals.”

While Salazar won’t be returning to the statehouse next session, he does plan on showing up to oppose any changes to the CRC as a citizen. But, he’s confident the upcoming midterm elections may decide this before the next legislature is even gaveled into session.

“Yes, conservatives are feeling quite emboldened right now, and they’re going to want to change things with the commission,” he said. “I just don’t see it’s going to get through the Democrat-controlled House and I think that we’re going to take the Senate back.”

Across the aisle, Sen. Lundberg also feels like the commission’s fate may at least be partially sealed at the voting booth in November.

“Realistically, I don’t believe this will become the pivotal issue of the year,” he said. “But I believe that any responsible voting citizen needs to bear this in mind when they vote for every elected official on their ballot.”

Read More: Colorado Civil Rights Commission's Statement On The Masterpiece Ruling via colorado.gov

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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