Civil unions bill passes committee

The Colorado Statesman

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill to establish civil unions over opponents’ objections that the measure amounts to an end-run around a constitutional provision banning same-sex marriage in Colorado.

Following nearly five hours of frequently emotional testimony in the packed Old Supreme Court Chambers — witnesses and some Democratic lawmakers choked up or fought back tears several times — the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-2 in favor of Senate Bill 12-02, with Republican state Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango voting with the panel’s four Democrats and state Sens. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, and Steve King, R-Grand Junction, casting no votes.

Civil unions bill sponsor state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, right, listens to a question from state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, during testimony by Colleen Haggerty of Colorado Catholic Charities at the Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Proponents argued that public opinion has shifted dramatically since voters shot down a 2006 measure that would have established domestic partnerships and at the same time amended the state’s constitution to define marriage as one man and one woman.

While some attacked the bill by quoting Scripture, calling homosexuality an “abomination” — at one point an opponent and a lawmaker argued whether the Bible condemns gay relationships more explicitly than it does slavery — and others claimed the bill would erode religious freedom, the chief argument against the legislation was that it comes to close too establishing gay marriage in all but name.

Dave Misner, whose partner, state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, is the chief sponsor of a civil unions bill, listens to testimony on the legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee in the Old Supreme Court Chambers on Feb. 15 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Lundberg led the charge against the proposal, likening it to an attempt at “legal jujitsu” to get around the constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage.

“The bill says it isn’t marriage, but then the bill goes on to mirror marriage in Colorado law,” he said, later adding that the bill duplicates marriage “in every respect that Colorado law can address.”

He also questioned why the measure’s proponents weren’t taking it to the voters, if public opinion was so strongly on the side of civil unions. (Lundberg didn’t concede that point, noting that senators had received 30,000 handwritten postcards opposing the bill this week, and also pointed to a poll at odds with ones touted by backers of civil unions.)

“You appeal to public opinion as the basis for moving this forward but reject the most appropriate initiative process,” he told the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, one of the Legislature’s four openly gay members. Lundberg then asked: “Why are you coming back repeatedly to the legislature when this could be more directly dealt with by the people through an initiative process?”

Republican state Sens. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and Steve King of Grand Junction listen to testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on SB-02, a bill to establish civil unions in Colorado, on Feb. 15 in the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This is exactly what our constituents elected us to do,” Steadman answered, citing the Federalist Papers as an argument against putting “any group’s rights on the ballot for a vote.”

After the hearing, Steadman cast the role of legislators as an historic opportunity.

“The fact is, this is something you’ll look back on your legislative career and say, ‘I voted on something that gave significant and important legal rights to a class of persons that were previously excluded.’ We don’t do that very often around here,” he said. “Most of the votes we cast aren’t really those kind of votes you look back on and say this was a historic moment when I stood on the right side of a righteous cause. And this is one of the rare opportunities in a legislator’s career to do that.”

Whatever the eventual outcome, this week’s hearing more closely resembled history repeating itself.

In many ways, it was nearly a precise replay of events almost a year ago, when the same committee passed the bill on to the Democratic-controlled Senate, which sent it to an uncertain fate in the House, where Republicans hold the majority by a single vote. Following a similarly charged hearing that went into the night, it died there on a party-line vote in the House Judiciary Committee.

State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, talks about the road ahead for his civil unions bill following a 5-2 vote in favor of the legislation by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Just as they had last year, a Colorado Springs couple led off the testimony.

Lisa Green and Shawna Kempainnen told lawmakers that Green’s job as a psychotherapist has given her “the right to comment on the struggles of families” and that, while “American families are indeed under attack,” it wasn’t committed same-sex relationships causing the trouble.

Green, who has multiple sclerosis, called it “absolutely inhumane” that the two couldn’t count on the same legal rights enjoyed by married couples when it comes to health care decisions. “I need to know Shawna has what she needs to care for me,” Green said.

“Every moment that I can spend with Lisa feels like poetry,” Kempainnen told lawmakers, adding, “I do think it is wrong for the state of Colorado and the United States of America to limit how far Lisa and I can go on our journey.”

Several Republicans also testified in support of the bill, including the spokesman for a group formed in December to give conservatives cover for an issue they contend deserves bipartisan support.

Introduced as “the Mario Nicolais” by committee chair state Sen. Morgan Carroll — the Aurora Democrat served with Nicolais on the fiercly partisan Colorado Reapportionment Commission all last year — the spokesman for the organization Coloradans for Freedom told lawmakers that “conservative principles unequivocally support civil unions,” and called the bill an example of “good public policy for conservatives.”

“Civil unions promote monogamous relationships,” Nicolais said. “They promote families. They promote caring for families and children. You can’t go to a Republican caucus or stump speech without hearing those values espoused over and over again.”

Michael Carr, representing the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP organization, noted that he and his partner were “recently ‘civil unioned’ in Illinois” and warned against the party sticking with “this sort of hateful, bigoted mantra” against same-sex couples.

In purely practical terms, he said, Republicans risk losing the support of young voters and winding up with fewer “troops on the ground at election time,” he said, adding that young voters are “going to hold a grudge against the GOP just as gays and lesbians are already holding a grudge against the GOP for their lack of movement on these issues.”

Echoing testimony by several opponents, Lundberg contended that the bill’s backers won’t be satisfied even if it passes, and instead will use it as a “stepping-stone” toward full marriage equality.

“If this were accepted and does become law for the state of Colorado, is that where you will be satisfied that we’ve addressed the inequities you’re claiming here, or is this the first step of overturning Colorado policy?” Lundberg asked Steadman.

“I can tell you, Sen. Lundberg, that if this bill passes, I will avail myself of it,” Steadman answered. “I am a member of the class of unmarried persons who are eligible for this relationship, and it is one that I would seek. Beyond that, I cannot predict. The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice,” he said, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At that point, the audience burst into applause, but state Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, who chaired the proceedings at the start, gaveled the crowd to silence.

“We want to make sure everybody is treated the same,” said Guzman, an openly gay lawmaker.

“So do we!” rejoined some in the crowd as laughter overtook the chamber.

“I didn’t mean to quite say it that way,” Guzman said, cracking a smile. “I’m not taking sides.”

Later, in his concluding testimony, Steadman again invoked iconic language from the civil rights movement. While he didn’t believe his bill was “too close” to marriage, he said he wanted to know which elements opponents would strip from the bill in order to satisfy them that it was different enough from marriage.

“Which of these should we get rid of to give them a seat far enough at the back of the bus?” he asked, and then went on to enumerate provisions the bill would establish for same-sex couples, including inheritance rights, the ability to make medical decisions, and the responsibility to care for each other before seeking aid from the state.

After the hearing, Steadman said he believed testimony about rights surrounding medical care made some of the strongest arguments for the bill.

“It’s the life-and-death stories where someone’s in the hospital emergency room, where someone’s received a diagnosis, where someone’s going to the nursing home,” he told The Colorado Statesman, “and that legally recognized relationship is crucial to making sure that their wishes are carried out and they’re next to and assisted by the people they care for most and love and want to have with them.”

The bill moves ahead to the Senate Finance Committee, where its approval is close to certain, and then to a vote before the Democratic-controlled Senate, where it passed by a wide margin last year with the support of three Republicans.

The political environment has changed even over the past year, backers of the measure say. Not only did Gov. John Hickenlooper include a call to pass a civil unions bill in his State of the State speech last month, but several Republican lawmakers who opposed the bill last year either aren’t running for reelection or have been drawn into more moderate districts.

Still, Steadman has yet to find a House Republican to sponsor the bill in that chamber, even though a handful of Republicans have indicated there’s a good chance they’ll support the measure if it makes it to the floor.

“I’m still looking for a willing and able Republican sponsor to help move this through the House,” Steadman said after the Senate hearing.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told The Statesman last month he expects to assign the bill to the Judiciary Committee, same as it was last year, where he said House Republicans will “deal with it in a way that’s fair and pragmatic.”

Steadman said he couldn’t predict whether the bill will emerge from a House committee this year, but added that it was only a matter of time.

“Every year this gains ground,” Steadman said following the Senate committee vote. “One of these days, it’s going to cross the finish line. It’s coming soon.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com