An Interview with Catherine Strode
The State Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing next week on a bill to reauthorize funding for the Colorado Civil Rights Commission (CCRC.) Funding the CCRC is being called one of the most contentious issues of the 2018 Legislative Session with opinions being drawn down party lines. In February, Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee voted to withhold the funding.
In an interview with Catherine Strode, Senate Judiciary Committee member Rhonda Fields voices her strong support of the reauthorization. She says the pending Supreme Court case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission of a Colorado baker refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is driving the partisan debate.
I believe all people in the state of Colorado deserve protection from discrimination against all the protected classes. If there is such harm based on discrimination, we need to have a safety net where that can be explored, investigated and researched to determine if there are any violations. I think we need to correct any wrong and that is what the Commission does.”
— Colorado State Senator Rhonda Fields, Senate Judiciary Committee Member
Do you think the Colorado case before the Supreme Court affected this push to defund the Commission?
“I do. The reason I say that is every time I read about the Commission being defunded, they always go back to that case of the wedding cake. When I first heard that I thought that case shouldn’t have anything to do with the defunding because the Commission is bigger than just that one scenario. That is, the cake maker saying he didn’t want to bake a cake because of the sexual orientation of the consumer. We have laws against that. Either you’re open for business or you’re not. You don’t get to pick and choose and say, ‘I don’t like you having a religious garment on.’ I don’t like the color of your skin. ‘You’re too old to purchase this product.’ If you start giving an inch, as it relates to a protected class, by saying, ‘No. I don’t want to do business with you.’ Then, who’s next? It could be any one of us if someone chooses to come up with, ‘I don’t want to do business with that person’.”
What are your thoughts about defunding the Colorado Civil Rights Commission?
“It’s just not the right time. It’s not appropriate for us to be thinking about defunding the CCRC because there are so many things going on, on the local level, the state level. I am getting a sense of discrimination tones. I think we need to be doing all possible to protect all of the classes that deserve protection. That’s: race, sexual orientation, religion.”
Do you hear from your constituents about situations that are discriminatory?
“Yes I do. One that comes to mind all the time is access to housing. Right now, affordable housing is extremely limited. Sometimes when those units become available, people have to fill out an application which is tied to a fee. That fee could be a range of $75 up to $200. There may be only one unit available. That application is screened. A lot of factors are considered that I believe should not be a part of the criteria if you get the home or the apartment. They might be considering your credit score. They could be considering your race. They could be considering your religion. They could be considering if you have a criminal background record. Those are forms of discrimination that make it harder for some people to have access to housing.”
What do you think about this being a partisan divide?
“I’m saddened by it because racism is real. It’s around us every day. Race plays out in every corner of our society. So do disabilities. So does sexual orientation. It plays out in our daily interactions with others. For someone to defund those protections and those safeguards is not understanding the reality of what it is like for someone to live in a world where sometimes decisions are made based on the color of their skin or their sexual orientation or their religion or age.”
There are calls for more lawyers on the Commission, Is that justified?
“I think that deserves a discussion. If there are people who believe there needs to be a new makeup of the Commission, why not have a discussion on that? If you see there’s someone missing from the table that needs to lend a voice to the work that needs to be done, you should expand the makeup of the group. That shouldn’t cause us to defund them.”
What do you think of claims the Commission doesn’t represent business interests well?
“I don’t have any facts on that. What I did read is that the Commission solved, or helped intervene, on over 735 cases that helped our small businesses. If they are not able to retain an attorney and a complaint is filed, you can have this Commission make recommendations or render decisions.”
What is the status of the Commission’s funding right now?
“Right now it passed out of the House to fund it fully. It passed out of the Senate to fully fund the Commission. Now it’s in Conference Committee. What the Conference Committee has to do is balance the budget. There were many amendments that came on to the Long Bill and it is their job to make sure it all works out and it is a balanced budget. It is on a holding pattern but because you have both Chambers supporting full funding the Commission, most likely it will get funded.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Communications and Policy Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.