The Colorado house judiciary committee approved a measure Thursday that would outlaw workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians, following testimony by witnesses who said they had no way to protect themselves against discrimination and harassment. The issue has been a contentious one in Colorado since 1992, when voters approved a measure banning the passage of any laws that would protect gays from discrimination; that law was ultimately struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. The workplace antidiscrimination bill has already passed the state senate.
Gabe Martinez told lawmakers he worked for a major chain department store as a manager of men's clothing in 1999, until his employers discovered he was gay and sent him to work in the lingerie department. When the chain closed its store in Lakewood, Martinez lost his job, while coworkers of his were transferred to other stores. He also chastised lawmakers who said people should be protected from discrimination because of their race, religion, or nationality but not their sexual orientation, because sexual orientation is a choice. "You think gay people choose their sexual orientation? I would respectfully ask you to open your mind and get over it," he told the panel.
The committee approved the bill 6-5 and sent it to the house appropriations committee, because of estimates the measure will cost the state $210,000 the first two years to investigate an expected 80 complaints a year, of which 10 would be pursued and four would require a hearing. Republicans questioned the need for the law and said businesses should have the right to fire an employee if the employee drives away customers. They also noted that Martinez and other witnesses who complained of discrimination lived in Colorado communities that already ban discrimination against gay and transgender workers.
The house sponsor, majority leader Alice Madden, a Democrat from Boulder, said the ordinances are more of a statement than legal protection in communities such as Boulder. She said few cases ever go to court: "They have ordinances, but the ordinances are meaningless."
Attempts to extend discrimination protections to gays, lesbians, and people who undergo a sex change have failed in the Colorado legislature for eight consecutive years. This year's version of the bill guarantees an employer's right to express disapproval of homosexuality because of religious beliefs, but it would not allow someone to fire an employee because of those beliefs. It also allows employers the right to enforce a dress code and require anyone changing his or her sex to practice a "reasonably consistent gender presentation."
Republicans said state law does not define a "consistent gender presentation," and Republican representative Richard Decker said businesses should have the right to fire employees who cost them customers. "If I see a cross-dresser, I don't go back to that business," he said. (AP)