Controversial civil unions bill clears first hurdle in committee

Legislation likely to sail through Democratic chambers
The Colorado Statesman

A Senate committee waved ahead a bill to establish civil unions for gay couples in Colorado on Wednesday over objections that it infringes on the religious rights of adoption agencies and bakers.

“When two people are fortunate enough to have found someone that they want to share the rest of their life with, why should the state of Colorado stand in the way?” asked state Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, one of four openly gay lawmakers sponsoring Senate Bill 11 this year.

As it has twice in the past two years, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill after hours of emotional and sometimes heated testimony, although this time the legislation faces a less uncertain fate and is expected to land on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk in March.

State Sen. Lucia Guzmán, D-Denver, accepts a congratulatory handshake from a constituent on Jan. 23 as her fellow Judiciary Committee members state Sens. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, and Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, look on. The committee had just passed a civil unions bill on a 3-2 party-line vote.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Last year, the bill passed out of the Democratic-controlled Senate with Republican support and made it through three Republican-controlled House committees before languishing on the next-to-last night of the legislative session, where it died in a tense standoff with GOP leaders. It died swiftly during a brief special session called by Hickenlooper in May when then-House Speaker Frank McNulty sent it to a notorious “kill committee.” But Democrats retook control of the House in the fall elections and this year set the docket and have the votes.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock prepares to testify in support of a civil unions bill as Father Bill Carmody, who represented the Colorado Catholic Conference and testified later in opposition to the bill, watches the proceedings on Jan. 23 inside the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, complained that the bill discriminates against religious beliefs and offered an amendment — shot down 3-2 on a party-line vote — that would have restored exemptions for child-placement agencies whose policies forbid adoption by same-sex couples.

The provision existed in last year’s version of the bill, but Steadman said he removed it after considering whether it would enshrine legalized bigotry into statute.

Fran and Anna Simon embrace over their 5-year-old son Jeremy after testifying in support of a civil unions bill at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the State Capitol on Jan. 23. The couple has testified numerous times before committees since 2011 about the protections the bill would offer their son, but this week they said he wanted to join them.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I was persuaded that this legislature should not be in the business of permitting discrimination,” he said.
Lundberg also said the bill takes an “Orwellian” approach to redefining marriage — banned for same-sex couples by a 2006 state constitutional amendment — contrary to the will of Colorado voters.

“I see a carbon copy, a mirror image of marriage in Colorado law, and I’m just not seeing it, what you’re saying, that there is such a big distinction,” he said.

Civil unions bill sponsors state Sens. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, look on as attorney Nicolle Martin testifies in opposition to the legislation before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Jan. 23 at the State Capitol. The committee passed the bill 3-2 along party lines.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

One Colorado’s Brad Clark told the committee that the two legal frameworks, while as similar as they can be under state law, still aren’t identical.

“Civil unions are not the same as marriage. Civil unions do not provide gay couples with the thousands of federal protections, like Social Security, immigration rights and tax benefits, and they certainly do not provide gay couples with the dignity they deserve from their government,” he said. He added that “words do matter” and that gay couples ultimately want to be able to marry, but that this bill doesn’t allow that.

“Today you have the opportunity to finish what should have been done nine months ago,” Clark said. “You have the opportunity to provide thousands of couples across the state with the protections they need to take care of and be responsible for their families.

The bill’s other prime Senate sponsor, state Sen. Lucia Guzmán, D-Denver, made an impassioned plea for her colleagues to take the next step in a journey that has spanned decades.

“This bill, once it passes and becomes law, will make Colorado strong, not weak, and robust, not diminished,” she said. “When those relegated to the fringes of an unequal society are welcomed in, legally and morally, our state of Colorado, or any society becomes stronger.”

Guzmán, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, handed over the gavel to rookie state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, the committee’s vice chairman, while she presented the bill. Ulibarri has testified in support of the bill in previous years and nodded to his partner in the front row during the proceedings.

As in its two previous hearings before the committee, a cavalcade of supporters and opponents trooped before lawmakers, some waving Bibles and others brandishing stories about their commitment to committed couples, whether gay or straight.

Mayor Michael Hancock gave stirring testimony about having to watch his gay brother, Robert, die while his partner was unable to make medical decisions.

“It is too late for Senate Bill 11 to help my brother Robert, but it’s not too late to correct what is a fundamental wrong in our society,” he said. “We cannot take no for an answer this year, we need to bring down the walls that divide us.”

“This to me is a bullying bill against those of us who believe in God’s teaching on homosexual behavior,” said Rosina Kovar, who gained notoriety and brief Internet fame two years ago with explicit testimony about bodily functions.

Denver activist John Wren assured lawmakers that he is “somewhat sensitive to the issue of trying to ensure fairness to all people,” having insisted that a company hire its first black employee in the 1960s, but nonetheless threatened legislators with recall if they went ahead with the civil unions bill.

“To the average citizen, this makes no sense, and I think to compare it to the civil rights battle of Martin Luther King is just outrageous to most people,” he said, adding that “this is being rammed through, it’s outrageous.”

Lundberg told The Colorado Statesman that he was “alarmed” that the bill no longer includes the conscience exemption it had last year.

“This is a discrimination against their religious values. It’s a judgment call on the part of the state to say we will force them to participate in what they consider to be morally wrong,” he said, predicting lawsuits will ensue if the bill is adopted.

Lundberg added that he was trying to improve a bill destined for passage, and that even if his proposed amendment were adopted, he still wouldn’t support the bill.

“I am not in support of establishing civil unions,” he said. “Here’s the fundamental point: Human history has shown us that the most important institution is not government, it’s the family. And the family is a heterosexual couple raising and rearing children. What we’re putting together today is something other than what we have known to be marriage through all of the thousands of years of human history. I believe this is not a small change or a refinement to the concept of marriage, I believe this is a distinct step away from what marriage is and does not serve our culture or our state.”

Republican attorney Mario Nicolais, founder of Coloradans for Freedom, a group of Republicans supporting civil unions, said that current law infringes on the rights of religious organizations to sanction same-sex unions.

“We’re not talking about fringe churches — we’re talking about the Episcopalian Church,” he said. “The InterFaith Alliance has a list of hundreds of churches that want to do that. I think it’s up to members of those churches and those communities — the government should not be barring them or saying they will not recognize their authority in marriage. It’s too far for the government and I think that any limited-government Republican would agree with me.”

The bill heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com