DENVER (AP) – Colorado lawmakers are considering bill to add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to anti-discrimination laws as state lawmakers across the country introduce bills to curb transgender rights. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, a nonprofit that advocates actions that promote understanding and acceptance of transgender people, there are 21 states with full non-discrimination protection that include gender identity.

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Utah law provides for gender identity in employment and housing, but not public housing. A Wisconsin law protects sexual orientation, but not gender identity.

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Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, deputy executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said 16 other states are considering updating non-discrimination legislation to include gender identity.

These bills are part of a conservative push to curb transgender rights through state legislation. Legislators in over 20 states introduced measures this year banning transgender girls from competing in girls’ sports teams in public high schools. In Alabama, the Republican governor’s veto has been overridden by law to pass a law banning gender-affirming treatment or surgery for transgender youth.

Colorado law would prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, financial services, health care, funeral services, access to and participation in public services, education, youth welfare, criminal justice, and transportation.

The bill was passed 3-2 on Wednesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee and will be put up for discussion in the Senate. If it passed there, it would go to the governor’s desk for review.

The bill defines “gender expression” as the way an individual outwardly reflects and expresses gender, including appearance, clothing and behavior. “Gender identity” is defined as a person’s innate sense of their own gender, which, according to the text of the law, may or may not correspond to the gender assigned at birth.

Sexual orientation is not the same as transgender, and it is not the same as gender identity and gender expression, said Senator Dominick Moreno, one of the law’s sponsors.

“It is important that our statute reflects the current environment,” added Moreno.

Several witnesses testified against the bill during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, saying the bill challenged religious expression and rights.

“With the passage of this bill, lawmakers will continue the practice of creating a hierarchy of rights that puts religious freedom second to expression of gender identity,” said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute, a public order think tank at the United States Colorado Christian University.

Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said the bill codified “discrimination against those with different beliefs in human sexuality,” forcing “government-mandated” beliefs with financial penalties through discrimination lawsuits.

Opposition witness Michelle Markum said the bill threatens the safety and emotional well-being of children by exposing them to talk about gender and allowing transgender youth to choose their own public accommodation.

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Markum said she was concerned about her daughter’s safety and privacy because of the ability to share bathrooms and changing rooms with “biological men who identify as female.”

“This is not fair for my daughter and could subject her to emotional trauma and leave her unsafe in places she would be most comfortable with,” said Markum.

Vessely also brought up a 2018 Supreme Court case in which a Colorado baker’s decision not to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was found discriminatory by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Supreme Court justices cited the commission’s anti-religious bias, saying it wrongly rejected Phillips’ religious beliefs.

The same baker recently went to court again for refusing to bake a cake for transitioning a transgender woman.

“If enacted, HB-1108 gives the same Colorado Civil Rights Commission the power to enforce this new law and determine how religious expression and worship are applied to religious intuitions and individuals,” Vessely said.

Several legal experts testifying in support of the law said it would not change existing protections under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act because “sexual orientation” already exists in the language of the law.

Iris Halpern, a civil rights attorney and former attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Denver, said protection already exists in state and federal laws. He merely modernizes the language and clarifies the definition of who and what is covered.

Marjanne Claassen testified on behalf of her transgender son in support of the bill. Claassen said her family was part of a conservative religious community, and on her son’s trip they discovered “more about a God who is full of love and acceptance for all”.

“Our trans son’s learning destroyed our prejudices about who transgender men and women are. We had to work our way to a new understanding, ”she added.

PATTY NIEBERG Associated Press / Report for America

Nieberg is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that lets journalists report undercover issues to local newsrooms.

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