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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers his second State of the State address in the House chambers at the state Capitol on Jan. 9, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Daniel Ramos, the executive director of Colorado’s largest advocacy organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, sees Republicans as allies in the fight for equality, tolerance and progress.

But a slate of legislation being championed by a handful of hard-right conservatives in the Colorado House, including one bill that would seek to end same-sex marriage in the state and bar same-sex couples from adopting children, is creating alarm.

“To see the most aggressive slate of anti-LGBTQ bills that we’ve seen at least in the past 10 years is a bit surprising,” said Ramos, who leads One Colorado.

None of the bills will advance in the Democratic-led General Assembly, and if anything, the measures are sowing an ideological divide within the Republican Party. They’re also opening an avenue of attack for Democrats, who are using the legislation to angle for votes in November. Progressive lawmakers and groups are planning a rally on Thursday to blast the measures and support the LGBTQ community.

“This slate of hateful, bigoted anti-LGBTQ bills show exactly what the GOP would do if they had a majority: use their power to attack trans youth, loving couples hoping to adopt, and children,” read a tweet this week from the House Democrat caucus, which is led by House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder.

The measures are primarily being run and sponsored by three lawmakers: Republican Reps. Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs, Dave Williams of Colorado Springs and Steve Humphrey of Severance. The lawmakers defended the legislation.

“I think this is one of many bills about protecting our traditional values,” Sandridge said of House Bill 1272, which limits marriage to being between a man and a woman. “When we look at traditional family or traditional way of life — the way of life that our family was really formed on — this bill is one of many that pushes back and says ‘we’re getting a little too extreme.’”

The other bills the group put forward include:

  • House Bill 1114, which would impose prison sentences on doctors who provide gender-transition treatment to people under 18. (This measure is backed by 14 of the 24 Republicans in the Colorado House, including House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock.)
  • House Bill 1273, which would prevent transgender girls from participating in girls’ school sports. (Only Sandridge has attached his name to this legislation)
  • House Bill 1033, which would let businesses refuse to serve LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs. (Eight House Republicans have signed onto this bill, including Neville.)
State Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance. (Handout)

Humphrey, the lead sponsor of the bill rolling back same-sex marriage, rejects the argument that the legislation is anti-LGBTQ. He thinks the courts have decided too many issues surrounding LGBTQ rights and that lawmakers and voters should weigh in.

“I think that each one of these bills are focused on an issue that’s problematic,” he said. 

Each of the 100 lawmakers in the Colorado legislature are allowed to introduce at least five bills each year. No one can tell them what measures they can and can’t bring, and each measure must get at least one hearing before a committee. 

But legislation also serves as a representation of a party’s values and serves as a preview of what Republicans would do if they regain power in the Colorado General Assembly. The party is in the minority in the House and Senate and doesn’t have control of the governor’s office. 

A number of statehouse Republicans asked by The Colorado Sun to share their views on the legislation refused to comment, a sign of how the issue is still politically difficult for the Colorado GOP. A Colorado Republican Party spokesman also declined to comment on the bills.

The legislation puts the Colorado GOP in a untenable place. The party is trying to win back moderate-minded suburban voters, particularly women, who have started to gravitate toward Democrats on social issues. But other lawmakers are intent on emphasizing issues favored by the base of the party.

Republican operatives outside the Capitol have been voicing concern about the emphasis of the LGBTQ legislation.

“This bill sucks, and it reflects poorly on my side,” Greg Brophy, a former Republican state senator from the Eastern Plains who now works as a lobbyist, tweeted about the legislation rolling back same-sex marriage.

“Government should butt out of these decisions,” Laura Carno, a Republican operative from Colorado Springs, said about the bill.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers his second state of the state address in the House chambers at the state Capitol on January 9, 2020 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Republican lawmakers who did speak with The Sun about their opposition to the bills said they think the legislation is distracting from real conservative goals. Some also expressed concern that the measures could hurt the party’s image.

“I’m a little bit worried,” said Colin Larson, a Littleton Republican who is viewed as being a rising star in the Colorado GOP and opposes the measures. “But down here, I think people often forget: We represent distinct constituencies of 80,000 people.”

He explained that constituents in his district likely disagree with the bills, the lawmakers sponsoring them come from different parts of the state with different values. 

Lawmakers in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Larson said he opposes the bill to roll back same-sex marriage because it’s an issue that was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. He does think that Colorado could use an “honest conversation” about transgender issues in the state, but among doctors and medical experts, not lawmakers.

“I think it’s important for us to have these conversations,” Larson said. “I don’t think that starting out with bills like this is the best way to go.” 

State Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican who has a son who is gay, said he doesn’t think the House bills reflect poorly on the Colorado GOP as a whole because both the Democratic and Republican parties have extreme wings and those on the far edges don’t speak for everyone.

“The extreme on either side should not be ruling,” Coram said. 

State Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, in the Colorado Senate on Feb. 12, 2020. “My opinion on this is ‘live and let live,’” he said. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The intent of the legislation, Coram said, reflects “a position that is certainly not accepted in the community that I represent, and I live in a very conservative community. But they are also very tolerant of others. Apparently tolerance is something other people haven’t learned yet.” 

Coram opposes the bills — “my opinion on this is ‘live and let live,’” he said — and would like to see lawmakers focus instead on economic issues. “Let’s work on things that are actually going to be to the benefit of Colorado,” he said.

That’s a sentiment echoed by at least one of his Senate colleagues. “I wish there was a focus on a positive, forward-looking agenda,” said Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican, explaining that he disagrees with some of the proposals. 

For other GOP state lawmakers, it’s a question about the government telling people what they can and can’t do. “I don’t think it’s up to us to make government force choices on people,” said Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland. “And that’s, I think, the risk that we all play.” 

The House members who are bringing the bills say they haven’t faced criticism from within their Republican caucus about the legislation, and they aren’t anxious about the broader political impacts on their party. Humphrey says he has taken those effects into consideration, but that he feels strongly about what he’s doing. 

“I’m certainly aware that we have all these important issues that we need to focus on,” he said. “But as a conservative, I think that something as basic as marriage is important to address and I’m not going to ignore that.”

Williams said he does expect blowback from Democrats, but that he’s working on behalf of his constituents in El Paso County.

“We’re representing our districts, we’re representing our values,” he said. “I don’t think the Republican Party itself has ever gotten away from those traditional values, especially as they relate to people’s sincerely held beliefs and faith.”

Rep. Dave Williams, left, a Colorado Springs Republican, speaks with other GOP lawmakers in the state Senate on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

And Sandridge said he’s just hoping to give voice to people with the same views as him. “A lot of these bills, whether we win or lose, we are going to have the conversation,” Sandridge said. “People who do cherish values, traditional families, they’re going to have their say.”

Ramos, the head of One Colorado, wants to be clear: He doesn’t think the anti-LGBT bills represent the views of the Republican Party as a whole. But he concedes that it’s caught his attention. 

Nevertheless, he’s optimistic about the GOP backing his efforts moving forward, pointing to Republican support last year of legislation outlawing so-called “gay-conversion” therapy and allowing transgender people to easily change their genders on birth certificates.

Gov. Jared Polis, the nation’s first openly gay governor, declined an interview request from The Sun. But in a written statement he said he’d “veto anti-LGBT legislation if it were to ever reach my desk.”

Gov. Jared Polis greets the press as he hosts his first news conference in his office inside the Capitol. “Our state has come a long way since the days of being known as the ‘hate state,’” he said. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Our state has come a long way since the days of being known as the ‘hate state,’” Polis said, citing a 1992 Colorado ballot measure that passed saying the state couldn’t approve laws protecting people on the basis of their sexual orientation. “And Coloradans won’t return to those bad days.”

Colorado voters also elected the state’s first transgender lawmaker — Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat — in 2018. There are also a number of LGBTQ Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate.

All four measures are expected to fail during their first hearings in the House Military, Veterans and State Affairs Committee on Thursday. 

(Update: All four measures were rejected.)

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....