Prepared remarks of Attorney General Phil Weiser at DU Civil Rights Summit
Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Phil Weiser:
University of Denver Civil Rights Summit
Friday, February 15, 2019
“A Continuing Pursuit: Colorado Civil Rights at the Crossroads”
Thank you for that very kind introduction. And thank you to ACS, ILS, the ACLU, and to the Public Interest Law Group for making this incredible day possible. And thanks to each of you for being here today, for your commitment to spend today learning more about how we, as attorneys, as law students, and as citizens, can help use the law to make Colorado a better, fairer, more just place.
My topic today is to answer the question: “what is the current state of civil rights in Colorado, and where we can go from here?” The short answer — as it has been at so many times in our history — is that the state of civil rights in Colorado is both deeply imperfect and yet gives us deep cause for optimism. This makes the title of today’s summit — “In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union” — a particularly appropriate one. After all, a pursuit is not a destination, but a journey, and what we do along the way will greatly shape the future of life in our country.
So today, I want to talk to you about the present and future of civil rights in Colorado, as I see it and as my office is involved. But to see where we are going, we need to see where we have been.
We, as members of the bar, as members of a profession committed to the rule of law and to justice under law, have a special role to play in this pursuit. And we as Colorado lawyers have a particularly special role to play. That’s because our State’s history has shown both some of the most glaring failures and the greatest successes of the pursuit of justice.
We are, tragically, the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, where United States troops massacred hundreds of Native Americans. We are a state where judges who ruled for racial equality in the Civil Rights era faced death threats and deadly attacks. And we are the state that passed the anti-LGBT Amendment 2, leading Colorado to be called, for a time, the “hate state.”
But fortunately, even as we reflect on these shameful periods of our past, Colorado’s history also gives us great cause for optimism. Our state was the first in the nation to adopt women’s suffrage by popular vote. Our state was the place where, ten years before the Federal Civil Rights Act, we passed the first law in the nation to ban discrimination in the sale of private and public housing. Our state was the place where, when leaders across the country called for the internment of Japanese Americans, Governor Ralph Carr resisted, an act of political courage that cost him his job but won him a special place in the history of equality. Our state was the place where Rachel Noel, the first Black woman elected to public office in Colorado, wrote the “Noel resolution” that integrated Denver’s public schools, and that was upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1973. And our State is the place that, just last month, was the first in the country to elect an openly gay man as Governor, and to do it an election where, whatever your political party, the candidates’ sexual orientation was a virtual non-issue.
What these achievements speak to is a powerful Colorado tradition: we as Coloradans are all on one team. When we are our best selves, we support one another, we come together to help one another, and we treat one another fairly. This is a core Colorado value. And it is a value that fundamentally shapes how I view my role as Colorado’s Attorney General.
Today, my office is involved on many fronts as part of this tradition. Many of you, a bit later in the day, will hear a bit more about the Masterpiece Cakeshop cases, an area where my predecessor, Cynthia Coffman, admirably defended equality under law, and one my office is continuing to work on. So in these remarks, I want to highlight a few other areas where the state of civil rights is very much in play here in Colorado, and where my office will be hard at work in the pursuit of equality under law.
First, I want to talk to you about the legal and moral challenge posed by the new policy announced by the Department of Health and Human Services that would permit federally funded adoption programs to openly discriminate against LGBT families, Jewish families, and others who do not share their religious beliefs. The granting of such waivers is deeply troubling and contradicts many of our core legal principles. This is a dangerous precedent, and it is a danger my office is committed to addressing.
Second, I want to highlight a potential danger to the state of civil rights in Colorado –- proposed legislation that would allow businesses across the state to opt-out of generally applicable civil rights laws and protections based on claimed religious exemptions. These efforts, if allowed to stand, represent a threat to core civil rights cases like Heart of Atlanta Motel  and to the vision of equality at the heart of our civil rights laws. So it is an issue our office is watching with great care.
Third, and on a more positive note, I want to talk to you the ongoing and long-overdue effort to ban so-called “conversion therapy” in Colorado. As we speak, our legislature is hard at work on this critical effort. My office will be supporting these efforts, and will be working with legislators at every step of the process to make sure this bill is as effective as possible and that it is legally sound.
Fourth, as we look at ways to make our criminal justice system more just and equitable, our Office is working with leaders across the political spectrum to help reform bail, so that no one stays in jail simply for being poor.
But finally, beyond any one area of focus, I want to highlight the work that the Office of the Attorney General does, day in and day out, to support the pursuit of justice here in Colorado. The Office of the Attorney General has 300 lawyers, and about 500 total employees, and it represents an extraordinary engine for justice here in our state. We are working every day to enforce Colorado’s civil rights, labor, and anti-discrimination laws. We are providing legal counsel to those agencies charged with protecting equal treatment under law, like the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. We are working to better protect the victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, both by supporting the crucial work of local prosecutors and by helping to lead our state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. And through the Safe2Tell program, we are working to stop bullying before it starts. Each of these efforts plays a critical role in our office’s support for civil rights here in Colorado.
One of my favorite sayings from my faith is “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” This saying means not only must we work toward justice, pursue justice, but that we must do so justly, and actively, with an eye toward making the world a better place. This is the task that we, as Colorado lawyers, are embarked on, and as your Attorney General, I am honored to join you in this effort. Thank you.
 Keyes v. School District No. 1, Denver, 413 U.S. 189 (1973).
 See, e.g., Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd., et al., Petitioners v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, et al., 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).
 Emanuella Grinberg, “South Carolina foster care providers can reject people who don’t share their religious beliefs,” CNN.com, Jan. 23, 2019, available at https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/23/politics/south-carolina-religious-freedom-nondiscrimination-waiver-hhs/index.html.
 Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U.S. 241 (1964).
 See Colo. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 24-31-701 et seq. (West) (outlining Attorney General’s role and responsibilities in this area).