DENVER — A bill to establish relationship recognition for Colorado same-sex couples passed its first legislative test today.
The Colorado Senate Judiciary Committee gave initial approval to The Colorado Civil Union Act on a party line vote, 3-2.
Republican state Sens. Kevin Lundberg and Steve King voted against the bill.
The bill, sponsored by four of Colorado’s out Democratic gay lawmakers, state Sens. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman, and state Reps. Mark Ferrandino and Sue Schafer, is on a fast track to reach Gov. John W. Hickenlooper’s desk sometime in early spring and become law May 1.
“In my estimation, the key issue, is recognizing the love between committed couples,” Steadman said introducing the bill to the committee.
While the OK from the committee was expected, Guzman said neither she nor the bill’s supporters were taking anything for granted.
“We do not take this opportunity lightly,” she said. “We’re here after having traveled a long, long journey. Today has been years in the making. It began 30-40 or more yeas ago.”
Proponents of the bill testified first.
“A civil union will mean that regardless of my employer, I won’t have to worry about keeping (my partner) on my insurance,” said Anna Simon.
Jack Finlaw, chief counsel for the governor’s office reminded the committee of Hickenlooper’s support.
“(The Colorado Civil Union Act) promotes both justice and prosperity,” Finlaw said.
Both straight and gay Republicans spoke in favor of the bill.
“The so-called ‘homosexual agenda’ is nothing more than participating in the American dream,” said high-profile Republican attorney Mario Nicolas.
Nicolas spoke on behalf of Coloradans For Freedom, a group of Republican donors and party leaders that formed last year to urge Republican support of the bill.
Echoing Nicolas, Vice President of the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans said time has changed and his party needs too, as well.
“I am asking today that members of my party will recognize that Civil Unions will affirm the importance of families built—like any family—out of respect, love, and commitment. If the lawmakers from our party remain committed to outmoded and unprincipled positions regarding families headed by same-sex couples, we risk looking at our 2012 electoral embarrassment as the good old days.”
Opponents of the bill argued the civil union bill would force business owners to go against their religious beliefs.
This year’s version of the Colorado Civil Union Act has less stringent religious protections and only covers clergy, not adoption agencies and child placement agencies like previous versions.
Nicolle H. Martin, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Colorado Family Action, said the bill had “glaring deficiencies,” without protections for religious exemptions.
Colorado law already forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation.
David Williams, speaking on behalf of the El Paso County Republican Party, said the bill circumvented the will of the voters.
In 2006, Colorado voters approved Amendment 43 defining marriage between a man and a woman. Voters also rejected Referendum I that would have established domestic partnerships.
“The voters did not merely mean to protect the word of marriage,” he said.
Originally introduced in 2011, the legislation met fatal opposition from Republicans who controlled the House chamber with a one-seat majority.
First, the bill died on a party-line vote at its first committee hearing in that chamber. Then, last year, after clearing three House committees with bipartisan support, GOP leadership put the House in recess running out the Constitutional clock on the bill. Less than a week later, then-Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, sent another version of the bill to a kill committee during a special session of the legislature called by Hickenlooper to re-visit the matter.
With both chambers of the legislature now in control of Democrats, two of the bill’s sponsors in official leadership positions in their respective chambers (Guzman is Senate president pro tempore, Ferrandino is speaker of the House), more than half of the 100 lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors (including one House Republican), the bill is the closest thing to a legislative guarantee as possible.
Hickenlooper has pledged to sign the bill into law and called for its passage in his State of the State address.
“Gay and lesbian couples share similar worries as everyone else, like making ends meet, losing their job, or being denied health insurance,” said Brad Clark, Executive Director of One Colorado, the lead organization advocating for passage of the bill. “Civil unions are an important part of building the security we all long for.”
In a first for the three year journey of the Colorado Civil Union Act, the public hearing was presided over by an out gay man, state Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, who is co-chair of the committee.
Guzman, who is the chair of the committee, presented the bill with Steadman.
One year ago, Ulibarri testified in front of the same committee with his partner Louis Trujillo. The couple is raising two children.
“My partner and I, like so many families in our state, want to ensure that our kids are protected in the event of tragedy but we currently lack the basic protections that many other families enjoy,” Ulibarri wrote in an email to supporters. “We have fought long and hard to move Colorado to a point where this legislation may become law, and I am honored to have a role in this journey.”