By Jeff Haanen and Chris Horst
Denver is on the rise. Construction cranes line the streets around Union Station. New residents arrive faster than we can house them. But as Denver surges, will our city be a place where religious people are permitted to live and work? Given the recent news, it’s a fair question to ask.
Last month, a Denver federal appeals court ruled against Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic ministry serving low-income elderly and dying people in Colorado and around the world. The nuns believe new federal health care requirements force them to violate their faith by mandating they pay for abortion-inducing drugs for employees. Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, one of the nuns serving at Little Sisters of the Poor, said, “We... simply cannot choose between our care for the elderly poor and our faith.”
Then, last month, the Denver City Council impeded the approval of a new restaurant lease at Denver International Airport (DIA). The “normally routine” approval process met a roadblock when several members of the Council decided the religious and political views of the restaurant’s owner — Dan Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A — did not meet their approval. To our knowledge, the Council has not interrogated the religious views of any other entrepreneur attempting to do business in Denver, nor has it defined which religious views are permissible.
Councilman Jolon Clark said Denver “can do better” than working with Chick-fil-A. Councilman Paul Lopez said his opposition to Cathy’s religious views is “really, truly a moral issue on the city.”
These two events illustrate a new hostility some Colorado lawmakers have toward religious expression. It’s important to clarify exactly what these lawmakers find inappropriate.
The Little Sisters of the Poor operate dozens of nursing homes worldwide for “the neediest elderly of every race and religion.” They do not discriminate in who they serve and only ask our government to allow them to provide health care plans to their employees that do not violate their most deeply held beliefs.
Chick-fil-A is in the restaurant business and is rated America’s favorite fast food. The Denver City Council has chosen to hold hostage the popular restaurant’s entrance into DIA not because the company has a history of discrimination towards its employees or customers. Consistently, Chick-fil-A outperforms its peers in these areas. It is solely because of the religious beliefs expressed by the company’s owner in 2012.
A year later, LGBT activist Shane Windmeye publically defended Cathy and Chick-fil-A in a Huffington Post article that described their friendship. Recently, The Denver Post Editorial Board rightly criticized the Council’s decision, asking, “Are corporate executives supposed to muzzle all opinion, or make sure their views mesh with the predominant outlook of politicians in cities where they'd like to do business?”
Denver celebrates its inclusiveness. But does our inclusiveness have room for religious people? To be clear, we do not believe these actions by the Council are akin to religious persecution, but we do believe they are unwise if we want our state to be hospitable to people of all religious perspectives — including views that differ from those of Little Sisters of the Poor and Cathy.
In 2007, anti-Muslim sentiment lead to the beating and robbery of an Iranian-American salon owner in Long Island. Her attackers said, “Your kind isn’t welcome here. You don’t belong here.” Colorado should continue to be a place where all people feel welcome. We want Colorado to live up to the sentiment captured by acclaimed writer Marilynne Robinson:
"Democracy, in its essence and genius, is imaginative love for and identification with a community with which, much of the time and in many ways, one may be in profound disagreement."
The American experiment hinges on this very definition of democracy, on our ability to live peacefully with our neighbors with whom we hold divergent views. If the recent actions of our lawmakers are any indication, our inclusiveness only has room for views approved by whomever currently holds office.
Colorado has long been a beacon of freedom for people of diverse ethnicities, creeds and religious traditions. For now, the spirit of the West lives on. Two weeks after the Council’s initial delay of Chick-fil-A’s airport lease, a committee unanimously approved it. The construction crews are busy at work in Denver for now, but unchecked intolerance toward people of faith will not keep them here for long. It’s bad for business and bad for Colorado.
Jeff Haanen is the executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work (@jeffhaanen). Chris Horst is the author of Mission Drift and vice president of development at HOPE International (@chrishorst).