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Death by a thousand cuts

The Senate Judiciary Committee Monday took Sen. Dave Schultheis’ “religious bill of rights proposal,” cut it into multiple pieces, killed those and then killed the bill.

Rabbi Steven Foster (center) sparred Monday with Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, over Schultheis' religious rights bill. (Foster's wife, Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, is in the background at the left.)
Rabbi Steven Foster (center) sparred Monday with Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, over Schultheis' religious rights bill. (Foster's wife, Sen. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, is in the background at the left.)

It was a form of parliamentary drawing and quartering, and, like that ancient execution method, it took a long time – 4 ½ hours.

The measure, Senate Bill 10-089, was sponsored by Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, and a champion of conservative social issues. In its original form, the “Religious Bill of Rights for Individuals Connected to Public Schools Act,” the bill would have allowed high school students and parents of younger students to opt out of classes for religious reasons, permitted teachers to opt out of teaching material that conflicted with their sensibilities and made school board members and employees personally liable in lawsuits over the bill of rights.

It also would have required the State Board of Education to adopt a bill of rights for students and parents and a second one for teachers and employees by Jan. 30, 2011, laying out rules for religious expression of various kinds in schools.

There’s an informal script for these sorts of bills, and it goes something like this: 1) Colorado Springs conservative proposes touchy “culture wars” kind of bill; 2) Democratic controlled committee politely takes emotional testimony from interest groups on the right and the left; 3) Committee Democrats, after making nice remarks to the sponsor, kill the bill.

There were elements of that in Monday’s deliberations, but the script got disrupted by some tangled parliamentary wanderings.

Schultheis got that ball rolling when he arrived at the hearing with a substitute version of the bill, known in legislative jargon as a “strike below,” as in, “strike” [delete] all the language below the enacting clause and substitute new language.

Schultheis’ “strike below” trashed all the original, highly prescriptive language and instead proposed a new idea under which the commissioner of education would ask the attorney general to basically develop a list of “frequently asked questions” about religious expression in schools. The FAQs would be distributed to school districts, which in turn would post them and distribute them to parents, teachers and other staff.

After two hours of testimony (civil liberties and education interest groups opposed, conservative witnesses in favor), the committee finally turned to the bill.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

First, Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, proposed cutting Schultheis’ substitute in half in the apparent hope that there’d be one piece the Democrats could support. That didn’t work.

Then, Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, basically proposed making parts of the bill optional, with the attorney general still assembling his FAQs but leaving it up to school districts to do what they wanted. In the end, that idea failed, too.

At 8:10 p.m., Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora and committee chair, announced, “We’re back to the bill in its original state.”

King made another stab at an amendment, but Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, had had enough. He moved to postpone the bill indefinitely – killing it.

“There aren’t any more amendments that are going to change the outcome,” he said.

The vote to kill was 4-3, with Carroll, Steadman and fellow Democrats Evie Hudak of Westminster and Linda Newell of Littleton voting yes. King, Renfroe and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, voted no.

“I’m sorry it took so long,” said Schultheis, with a weak smile.

Schultheis introduced a similar bill in 2007, which was killed in another Senate committee on Feb. 14, 2007.

Despite the outcome, the tone of the Monday hearing was excruciatingly polite, with Carroll letting witnesses takes as long as they liked and being very solicitous of Republican attempts to amend the bill.

The only Sparks came when Rabbi Steven Foster, longtime leader of Denver’s Temple Emanuel, testified against the bill. He didn’t endear himself to committee Republicans (all conservative Protestants) with remarks like “This is a secular country in which you and I have the right to practice our religions” and “I want to know what it is fundamentalist Christians want of me. They want me to convert to Christianity. I’ve heard that a million times.”

A few minutes later, Foster said, “My words were not intended to be hostile to him [Schultheis] personally.”

Foster also said to the committee, “I hope you will PI this bill quickly.”

He only got half his wish.

For the record

The House Monday delayed a final vote on Senate Bill 10-001, the proposed Public Employees’ Retirement Association rescue bill. Floor action was cut short so maximum time could be available for a series of Joint Budget Committee briefings on proposed adjustments to the 2009-10 budget.

The Senate Monday gave final approval to:

  • Senate Bill 10-056 – Required distribution by schools of standard immunization information to parents
  • Senate Bill 10-008 – Study of average daily membership method of counting school enrollment
  • Senate Bill 10-058 – Expanding eligibility for the nursing teacher loan forgiveness program

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

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