Colorado Springs once hatched a menacing effort to intensify the discrimination against gay Coloradoans by cutting them off from basic legal protections.
That was back in 1991, when the handsome, gleaming city at the foot of the Rocky Mountains was such a magnet for ultraconservative religious groups that it was known as the "Vatican of evangelical Christianity."
In the spring of that year, a proposal that Colorado Springs follow the lead of Aspen, Boulder and Denver, and outlaw anti-gay discrimination, sparked such a furor that the city council dropped the idea. Emboldened by their success, coordinators of that anti-gay drive created Colorado for Family Values.
Bankrolled by a Colorado Springs car dealer, that group launched a smear campaign designed to persuade the voters to amend the state's constitution to bar state and local governments from prohibiting anti-gay discrimination. Government officials would have even been banned from punishing, say, a firefighter for refusing to come to the assistance of someone gay.
On the eve of the 1992 election, the Colorado Springs-based group, which accused gay people of wanting "special rights," distributed 800,000 brochures that outrageously equated being gay with molesting children. Amendment 2 narrowly passed.
That led to a boycott that cost the state at least $40 million in convention and tourist business, produced a landmark 1996 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court striking the amendment down as unconstitutional, and tarnished the images of the state and Colorado Springs.
Now, in a laudable move to try to finally free its city from its anti-gay past, the Colorado Springs City Council has extended family health benefits to the partners of gay city employees. As of Jan. 1, gay city workers have the option to sign up for partner benefits, now offered in six locales in Colorado and more than 140 cities nationwide.
City Manager Lorne Kramer, who was Colorado Springs' police chief for many years, proposed the benefit change because "leadership is not doing what is politically safe but doing the right thing." He hopes that the positive message sent by the change will help his city attract and retain the best workers.
"One of the things we found that determines whether people and businesses will relocate to an area is what kind of environment is present," explains Kramer, adding that he had long been frustrated by having to spend time at national conferences making apologies for his city's anti-gay history. "This (change) was another demonstration of what I see as a more enlightened outlook."
Gary Renville, former president of Colorado Springs' gay-rights group, says venomous opposition to the new benefits by people claiming to be religious backfired: "City councilors have said the more they heard from the Religious Right, the more they realized this isn't about religion but about fairness and economics and untarnishing a negative reputation that has hurt what is really a beautiful city."
Perhaps no one better appreciates the symbolic significance of Colorado Springs' positive step than the Rev. Priscilla Inkpen, one of the gay Coloradoans who courageously challenged Amendment 2 all the way to the nation's top court.
"It's amazing that Colorado Springs could turn around like this in 10 years," she says. "The deep message of Scripture is about justice and more light gradually being shown. We are seeing the light."
In knocking down Amendment 2 in 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court explained: "Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals not to further a proper legislative end but to make them unequal to everyone else. This Colorado cannot do. A state cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws."
Finally, Colorado Springs is treating gay people not as unwelcome strangers but as valued members of the family of mankind.
Deb Price of The Detroit News writes the first nationally syndicated column on gay issues and is the co-author of "Courting Justice: Gay Men and Lesbians v. the Supreme Court." To find out more about Deb Price and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com .
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