The state House of Representatives on Tuesday gave final, bipartisan approval to civil unions despite complaints from Republican lawmakers that the legislation failed to protect those who object to same-sex couples on religious grounds.
“This bill is about three simple things: it’s about love, it’s about family, and it’s about equality under the law,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, the chamber’s first openly gay leader and one of the bill’s chief sponsors.
“Let me be clear: this is not marriage,” he said, adding that he supports gay marriage, which is forbidden under a 2006 amendment to the Colorado Constitution. “While this is not marriage, civil unions will provide the basic legal protections for families in this state.”
Noting that Colorado’s legislature has the highest percentage of openly gay members in the country — five House members and three senators, all Democrats — Ferrandino said, “While we are equal in many ways to the 60 other members of this body, our love is not equal, our families are not equal.”
The Colorado Civil Union Act would grant any couple — gay or straight — rights similar to those enjoyed by married couples in Colorado, including hospital visitation rights, the ability to make medical decisions, inheritance rights, joint adoption and provisions to dissolve the relationship, including custody and visitation rights.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he will sign the legislation. On Tuesday afternoon he tweeted: “#CivilUnions passes! Today, every Coloradan has equal rights.”
The bill was sponsored in the House by Ferrandino and Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and in the Senate by Sens. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman, both Denver Democrats.
“We truly do stand on the edge of history. For some in this chamber, this is the reason we are here in this time and this place,” said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, before the House voted.
“I think this is a good conservative bill,” says state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, during debate on the civil unions bill in the Colorado House on March 11. Gerou was one of two Republicans to support the measure in the House, which passed the legislation 39-26.
He called the chance to support the bill “a time for redemption of the slights, of the uncomfortable secrets, of the taunts and the sneers,” adding, “We vote today to redeem our friends, our aunts, our uncles, our brothers, our sisters, our children, and I daresay, our colleagues, from the scourge of discrimination and inequality.”
The lopsided 39-26 vote — two Republicans voted with every House Democrat — caps a three-year fight over the legislation, which passed the Senate during the previous two sessions but died both times in the House, which was then controlled by Republicans. The bill came to a late-night end when GOP leaders shut down debate on dozens of bills rather than bring civil unions to a vote as the legislative clock ran out. Its demise led Hickenlooper to call a special session, where Republicans swiftly killed it in committee.
The bill’s spectacular fate became a rallying cry for Democrats, who seized control of the House in last year’s elections in part by blasting what they termed the chamber’s “dysfunctional” Republican leadership.
“The people spoke in November, and we are fulfilling a promise that we made at the end of last session that we would get this done, and now it’s heading to the governor,” said Ferrandino after the bill had passed.
He added that he’s never hidden his desire for “full marriage equality” for gay couples in Colorado, which is currently forbidden by a 2006 voter-approved constitutional amendment.
Steadman echoed the sentiment at a celebratory press conference on the House floor.
Noting that he’s fought for gay civil rights for decades — since state voters passed Amendment 2, which prohibited anti-discrimination laws favoring gay residents in Colorado and was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, Steadman said, “Today really is the high point of that struggle. And yet, we’re not there yet. Civil unions are not marriage, they are something that is separate and distinct and unequal, and that really isn’t good enough. We passed this bill because this is the best we can do.”
During a tense floor debate that lasted more than four hours on Monday, Republican lawmakers argued that the bill fell short, proposing several amendments to grant exemptions to county clerks, adoption agencies and businesses whose religious beliefs might be offended by offering their services to gay couples.
“We are talking about deeply held religious beliefs,” said Minority Caucus Chair Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, who noted that last year’s version of the civil unions bill had reached the House floor with some of the exemptions she was proposing.
“One thing I won’t compromise is equal rights,” Ferrandino retorted. He called it “shocking” that Conti’s proposed amendment would allow county clerks to claim a religious exemption and refuse to issue civil union certificates. “That, to me, makes no sense. That’s just wrong.”
He also objected to a provision in Conti’s amendment that would allow vendors to refuse service to couples engaging in a civil union based on religious objections, saying the legislature had already prohibited certain forms of discrimination in a 2008 public-accommodations law.
“What this bill is about, really, is the Bible. Is it right or wrong?” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono.
Arguing that, “we make exceptions for religious institutions all the time,” Saine asked, “Where is the separation of church and state in this chamber?” She repeatedly asked whether the House plans to cancel the morning prayer and remove the utterance “under God” from daily proceedings.
The bill exempts pastors, reverends, rabbis and other clergy from any duty to perform a civil union. It also lets institutions whose primary purpose is religious — churches and synagogues, for instance, but not subsidiary businesses or charities run religious organizations — opt out of involvement in civil unions.
Addressing complaints by Republicans that prior versions of the bill included the religious conscience exemptions they were seeking to add, Ferrandino grew exasperated.
“What’s different this year than last year,” he said, was what he concluded “after talking to people, not just people who want to change it and won’t vote for it no matter what’s in the bill. They didn’t want to enshrine discrimination into this bill that’s trying to create equality. That’s the difference.”
None of the proposed amendments, which Ferrandino said would have the effect of “enshrining discrimination in state laws,” were adopted.
Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs, also tried to amend the bill to send the measure to the 2014 ballot, pointing out that Colorado voters in 2006 had rejected a similar proposal. That year, voters narrowly defeated Referendum I, which would have created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.
“OK, really?” an incredulous-looking Ferrandino said. “I don’t ask to put your relationships up to a vote of the people,” he said. “I don’t think we should ask the people of Colorado to decide on basic, legal, civil rights,” adding that he hadn’t supported sending Referendum I to the ballot either. “Granted, public opinion has changed in this area, but I still don’t think we should put to a vote my rights, my love for my partner and my family, or for anyone.”
A visibly angry Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, took to the microphone after hours of discussion about whether or not religious folk could discriminate against gay couples.
“I’m trying to understand something that’s happening in this chamber today. When did ‘discrimination’ become a good word? When did it become OK to come up to the well and say, ‘Oh, we discriminate all the time, and that’s OK’?” Melton said. “I’m a Christian, and what I remember from the Book of Luke is that the greatest commandment is to treat others as you would want to be treated.”
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who led much of the debate opposed to the bill, said that he knew his words might be misconstrued. “I very clearly said that I abhor the denial of equal protection under the law, discrimination by the state, and, I, frankly, on a personal basis, abhor discrimination for reasons of race or region or nation orientation or ethnicity or sexual orientation,” he said.
The next day, before the bill’s final, recorded vote, Gardner summed up his opposition to its current form.
“My primary objection to Senate Bill 11 as it exists today is that, while it may be inevitable that civil unions will become the law of Colorado, and, in fact, commonplace by this time next year, this bill does not recognize and does not take cognizance of the religious conscience of those who have entities that make child placements, that do hiring, that make decisions about who will instruct and raise and nurture their children,” he said.
“We won’t get to debate this again here, we will debate this in a court of law,” warned Saine on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, two Republicans voted for the bill on final passage, including Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock — who gave an emotional account of her decision two weeks earlier when she cast an aye vote in the House Judiciary Committee — and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who has supported the bill for years.
“What I think this bill is really about is personal freedom and individual liberty,” Gerou said on the floor on Monday. “I think this is a good conservative bill.”
Before casting her vote on Tuesday, Gerou insisted that she wasn’t an outlier in her party, despite the vote that was about to occur.
“I want to make sure that everyone knows that the conservatives and the Republican Party is a bigger party than the bulk of the conversation that’s been held here,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of Republicans that think differently than other Republicans, and that’s what I like about the party. It truly is about individual freedom, which is what this bill is about.”
Ferrandino’s husband, Greg Wertsch, lauded the bill’s passage and said that the couple’s foster daughter Lila would one day be glad she had been there to witness it, although he allowed that the toddler probably wasn’t aware of the day’s historic importance.
“I’ve been telling her,” he said with a laugh. “I think she’s just very happy that we’re happy. As she gets older, I think she’s going to be very proud about her papa doing this in Colorado and that she was here today on this significant day.”
“I’m very excited for all the children in Colorado who are in gay and lesbian families because it’s going to mean more protection for them, safety and security in homes,” Wertsch said, adding that he and Ferrandino are planning to enter into a civil union soon after May 1, when the law is expected to take effect.
When the legislature’s eight openly gay members gathered to discuss the bill’s passage on Tuesday, five — including Ferrandino — raised their hands when asked who was planning on a civil union.
Steadman, whose long-time partner, Dave Misner, died last summer after a brief battle with pancreatic cancer, kept his hands clasped and lowered.
“Some of us don’t get that opportunity,” he said. Then he added, “But there’s always the future. Never say never.”