Controversial same-sex civil unions bill passes through committee

GOP Rep. B.J. Nikkel casts deciding vote
The Colorado Statesman

Gay and lesbian couples on Thursday hugged their partners closely with tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, as a “courageous” Republican member of the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee agreed to break rank and swing her vote the Democrats’ way to allow same-sex civil unions in Colorado.

Proponents had hoped 2012 would be their best shot at passing civil unions legislation, and it appears their beliefs are proving true after Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, backed the measure in an effort to send Senate Bill 2 to the full House for a “fair” hearing.

“I’ve said all along that I would make sure that we would give the bill a fair hearing,” Nikkel said following the vote. “It’s a good thing for all of my colleagues to have the opportunity to have a say on this. They represent all of Colorado and I believe that the correct way to do this is through the representative form of government that we have right here.”

Early on Thursday, some speculated that Nikkel might join with Democrats in supporting the measure after an e-mail that circulated Wednesday from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, suggested that Nikkel had “changed her mind” and would not commit to a “no” vote on the bill. She says she did not vote for the measure in response to the speculation, and she is not concerned about backlash from Republican leadership or constituents.

“I will love my neighbors,” quipped Nikkel.

SB 2, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Pat Steadman, and in the House by Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino — both Denver Democrats and both openly gay — still faces two tough committee hearings in both House Finance and Appropriations.

Still, actions this year on the measure — which would provide same-sex couples with similar legal rights, benefits and responsibilities as those enjoyed by a couple that enters into a marriage between a man and a woman — gives the gay community hope and inspiration.

“Today was a huge step forward, where we saw that in this chamber, in this House, we now can say we have bipartisan support,” said Ferrandino, who added that to celebrate, he was going to have a drink with his partner later Thursday night to decompress.

The minority leader is a bit nervous that Republican leadership could play around with the bill on the House calendar, stalling it with just a few days left in the current legislative session. But he hopes for a fair hearing and vote.

“I’m hopeful that the bill lives or dies on its merits and by the votes of the members who are elected to represent the constituents, not by being delayed with gimmicks,” Ferrandino said.

Wooing Republicans was key

Proponents had mounted a successful effort to woo conservatives, establishing a prominent group of Republicans outside the Capitol to support the legislation. It remains to be seen whether the actions of that group, Coloradans for Freedom, led by well-known attorney and Republican Mario Nicolais, will actually send the legislation through both chambers, but Nicolais says he is more hopeful than ever, admitting that he was not sure what the outcome would be Thursday night. He called his friend, Nikkel, “courageous” for casting the vote she did.

“People talk about how our government is broken. My answer to that is B.J. Nikkel, someone who has pressure from all the world… and she had the spine to stand up for that,” said Nicolais.

During testimony, Nicolais implored committee members to uphold “conservative values” by voting in favor of the bill. He said the issue was about religious freedom, liberty and civil rights, and pointed out that at the Republican State Assembly last month, 45.7 percent of Republicans voted to support civil unions.

“When civil rights are an issue — equal rights — the legislature should move heaven and earth to make sure that they’re passed,” said Nicolais.

Former Sen. Ed Jones, R-Colorado Springs, took offense to the civil rights argument, pointing out that as a child growing up in Mississippi under Jim Crow laws he saw firsthand what a civil rights issue really was. He does not believe same-sex unions fall under that category.

“I’ve never seen a sign… that says, ‘Gays need not apply,’ or, ‘This is just for gays only’” argued Jones during testimony.

But as Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, pointed out, the Colorado Constitution is a sign in and of itself, since Colorado voters in 2006 defined marriage as being a union between one man and one woman.

“There is a sign in the Colorado Constitution when it comes to marriage that says it’s between a man and a woman,” said Kagan. “You couldn’t get a clearer sign than that. Gays need not apply…”

SB 2 already cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate on April 26 with relative ease. The measure even earned the support of the Republican caucus’ only three female senators, including Sens. Nancy Spence of Centennial, Jean White of Hayden and Ellen Roberts of Durango — the same three Republicans who had supported a similar bill in the Senate last year.

But proponents always knew the uphill battle would be in the House, and so much of the work by proponents was on lobbying Republican lawmakers in the lower chamber, led by One Colorado, a group dedicated to LGBT efforts.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is a tremendous victory for gay and lesbian couples across the state,” said Brad Clark, executive director of One Colorado. “We applaud Rep. Nikkel’s courageous vote for all families. She is the new face of the Republican Party — a party that’s quickly recognizing that civil unions adhere to a core conservative principle: the less intrusion into personal liberty the better.”

Proponents had also targeted Rep. Brian DelGrosso, another Republican from Loveland and a member of the Judiciary Committee, as the lawmaker had expressed some interest in establishing same-sex civil unions. Last month, DelGrosso told Colorado Statesman reporter Ernest Luning that, “I was on the fence last year. I think a lot of these folks getting into relationships, they deserve to have the same [legal] protections.”

But DelGrosso stayed true to his vote from 2011 and ultimately came out against the measure. The bill still passed 6-5 despite his “no” vote.

Causing things to be even more unsettled in terms of gauging Republican support earlier, there was a slight complication to the Judiciary Committee’s makeup Wednesday night after committee member Rep. Mark Barker, R-Colorado Springs, experienced health complications and landed in the hospital. House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, tapped Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, to fill in for Barker on the committee. Baumgardner has been opposed to civil unions, and McNulty has repeatedly stated his opposition to the measure, so the choice fell in line with the desires of House Republican leadership.

Moving despite no GOP sponsors

Ferrandino had hoped to find a Republican sponsor for SB 2 in the House this session, noting that he has the support of several Republican House lawmakers. But none put their name forward to sponsor the bill. Ferrandino remains convinced, however, that if he gets the bill to the floor, it will pass and then he will be able to send it to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, for his signature.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and it’s not a matter of when, it’s a matter of now…” opined Ferrandino. “Talking to my colleagues in the House, when this bill gets to the floor, this is not going to be a slim margin of victory.”

Hickenlooper lobbied for passage of the legislation in his State of the State address at the beginning of the session in January. The governor sent Jack Finlaw, his chief legal counsel, to testify in committee on Thursday. Finlaw is both Republican and gay.

“It’s about our society’s embrace of people who are coming together to create families…” said Finlaw. “It’s important, and the governor thinks it’s important that we as a state acknowledge the civic good as a societal good.”

Bolstering the argument for families were Fran and Anna Simon, a same-sex couple who described themselves as just a Colorado lesbian couple with a “kid [Jeremy] and a Subaru.”

“Current Colorado laws do not provide me with the tools I need to care for and protect my family,” Fran Simon said at a rally yesterday afternoon at the Denver City and County Building ahead of Thursday night’s hearing.

“We have birth certificates, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, designated beneficiary agreements and other contracts,” she continued. “We’ve taken advantage of every possible legal resource available to us… but even with this large stack of papers, we have no way of knowing if in our time of need, will it be sufficient? Maybe. Maybe not.”

Her partner, Anna, became overwhelmed by emotions when testifying later in the evening before the Judiciary Committee. “This is the person I’m sharing my whole life with because I believe God chose her for me,” testified Anna Simon. “People understand that a civil union means that she is the one who is meant to make medical decisions when I can’t. She is the one I want to have at my bedside in the hospital. She is the one that I want taking care of my son if I become seriously injured or die.”

Much of the opposition expressed by lawmakers on the committee revolved around a 2009 law, also sponsored by Ferrandino and Steadman, that allowed unmarried couples to have certain legal rights by filling out a contract. Critics felt the law answered many of the concerns that proponents are trying to address through civil unions legislation.

“Why not take what we currently have in law… and just work on making what we have in current law better?” asked DelGrosso.

But as Ferrandino explained about civil unions, “It’s a little more comprehensive in terms of recognition of this relationship, and then the idea of responsibility.”

A significant amount of the criticism from citizens had roots in religious tenets, with some detractors quoting the Bible to make their points. At a Capitol rally earlier on Thursday to celebrate the National Day of Prayer, Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, offered his own prayer concerning the legislation, stating, “Let us pray… that you [God] will especially be with the House Judiciary Committee today that they make the decision on civil unions, that they would use your words, that they would do as you want them to do, not as the world wants us to do.”

Republicans also suggested that if the idea of civil unions is popular with voters, as proponents contend, why not take the proposal to the Colorado ballot for a vote? Ferrandino argued that the process should be done through legislation.

“Basic human rights really should be done by the legislature,” he said. “It is our job as elected officials to protect the minority groups within our society, and I think that is what this is doing.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com