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Expansion Of Religious Rights In Discrimination Cases Fails

DENVER (AP) — The growing conflict between religious groups and gay-rights advocates over punishments in discrimination cases played out Monday in Colorado, with a Democrat-led committing rejecting Republican proposals aimed at protecting individuals and organizations from complaints.

But what some conservatives view as trying to preserve religious freedom, Democrats and gay-rights advocates see as potentially sanctioning discrimination.

One proposal would have prohibited penalties in discrimination cases if the punishment — such as an order to serve gay couples — violated the beliefs of the accused. Another measure, written broadly, barred government officials from constraining the exercise of religion.

Jon Monteith, spokesman for the gay rights group One Colorado, said that while religious rights are important, "that doesn't allow people to pick and choose the laws they want to follow."

The bills heard Monday afternoon come as two Colorado bakers face discrimination complaints, but from two different perspectives.

One suburban Denver baker is embroiled in a legal fight over a judge's order that he serve gay couples after he refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. The baker, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, has argued that providing that service would violate his Christian beliefs.

The meeting at the Capitol on Monday (credit: CBS)

In another case, a Colorado man filed complaints against three bakeries that refused to make a Bible-themed cake with religious scripture. One of the bakers, Marjorie Silva, owner of Denver's Azucar Bakery, said she refused to make the cake because she considered the Bible scripture and images the man wanted to be hateful toward gays. Those cases are being reviewed by Colorado's Civil Rights Division.

The man who filed the complaints against the three bakers, Bill Jack, of Castle Rock, said in written testimony read to lawmakers that Colorado's current anti-discrimination law "abridges the right of free speech and artistic expression of all bakers, florists, photographers and other business owners who are compelled to participate in activities that their creed instructs them violates their sincerely held beliefs and consciences."

Similar clashes have arisen in other states. A Washington state florist, for example, is contesting a judge's ruling against her for refusing to create floral arrangements for a gay wedding. In New Mexico, the state's Supreme Court ruled that a photographer who refused to take pictures of a gay couple's commitment ceremony violated discrimination law.

As such conflicts continue to materialize, lawmakers around the country have sought to strengthen religious protections.

Colorado's proposals were rejected in a Democrat-led House committee that heard them. But they highlight ongoing concerns from conservatives about religious freedom as gay rights gain greater acceptance.

"My bill does not encourage discrimination," said Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, who sponsored the bill to restrict penalties in discrimination complaints. "My bill does not deny anybody a sandwich, or a restaurant. My bill protects the artists, including the bakers, and the florists, and the photographers."

That bill failed on a 9-2 vote, with some Republicans voting no.

Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Franktown, sponsored the bill saying government officials can't interfere with someone's religious expression. He said his proposal would protect both Colorado bakers facing complaints.

"From my eyes, it actually prevents the government from discriminating against the individual," he said.

That bill failed on a 7-4 vote, with one Republican voting no.

It's an active debate in Utah, where lawmakers are considering a bill that bars discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill, which has support from both parties, includes exemptions for religious groups and protections for religious individuals to voice their views.

Another Utah bill would allow government workers to refuse to marry gay couples, but only if they give up their right to marry any couples. And another bill would protect individuals from discrimination complaints if their actions are prompted by sincere religious beliefs.

Last year, Republican Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed legislation that said state and local governments cannot put a substantial burden on religious practices. Critics argued that could prompt discrimination against gays.

House lawmakers in Kansas last year passed a "religious freedom" bill that went on to die in the Senate over worries about the potential for discrimination.

In Arizona, former Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have allowed businesses to deny services to gay customers.

LINKS: House Bill 1161 | House Bill 1171

- By Ivan Moreno, AP Writer

Associated Press writers Michelle Price in Salt Lake City, John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., and Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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