Civil unions bill clears Colorado Legislature, heads to Governor


DENVER — Colorado will become the 18th state to offer relationship recognition to same-sex couples after the House of Representatives gave its final bipartisan approval to a bill that will establish civil unions here.

The final vote, under a surprise snowstorm, comes after an emotional, politically charged and consequential journey that began on the north steps of the Capitol Valentine’s Day 2011.

Two Republicans, state Reps. Cheri Gerou, Carole Murray, voted with all 37 Democrats for the bill.

Colorado state House vote on civil unions.
Photo courtesy One Colorado.

Colorado’s out gay lawmakers seized the moment.

Some were brief.

“The time has come and please support equality for everyone,” said Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins.

Some looked beyond Colorado.

“This is not just a message to Colorado, this is a message to the world that is following this issue of equal rights for gays and lesbians,” said Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver. “There are countries like Uganda that is considering a death plenty for gays, like Iran that have executed gays. Let’s send a message today: that we love all of our citizens, appreciate all of our citizens, and we will treat them equal under the law.”

Out gay lawmaker Rep. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, after the Colorado Civil Union Act is passed by the state’s House of Representatives.
Photo: Sean Mullins, Out Front Colorado

Some spoke of hope.

“I know typically explain my votes, but today, I don’t have a story,” Moreno said. “That’s not because I don’t know gay people. It’s because this story is my own. And this is something I’ve waited for for a very long time. When you decided to be true to who you are, you embark in a journey of self acceptance and all you can hope for is that other people accept you too. By passing this bill today, we give young people, LGBT people, that ultimate form of acceptance, that in the eyes of your government you are truly equal.”

Some were blunt.

“There is nothing in this law that is going to hurt anybody in my opinion,” said Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge. “What was not said yesterday is that there is a lot of fear in the underlined opposition. We call that fear homophobia.”

And some were philosophical.

“We need to make laws for the right man and the poor man. The straight man and the gay man. We need to make laws that respect everyone equally,” said Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino.

Some supporters of the bill waited three years to vote on the matter.

“This is not a bluff to be called. It is more than that. It is a historic moment to be seized,” said Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs.

The most vocal opponents of the bill foreshadowed lengthy court battles.

Some hypothesized the new law would be use by gay activists to advance marriage equality.

“We won’t get to debate this again, we’ll debate this in the court of law,” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacano.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, echoed and added the lack of religious exemptions in the current version of the bill will have implications First Amendment implications.

“We’ll see this in the courts because we did not deal with this properly here,” he said.

The state Senate previously approved the bill in February.

Gov. John W. Hickenlooper has promised to sign the bill into law. He is expected to do so later this month. Once the bill is law, county clerks will be able to issue licenses May 1.

The Colorado Civil Union Act, sponsored by four of the state’s out gay lawmakers — Sens. Pat Steadman and Lucia Guzman, Rep. Sue Schafer and Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino — will grant most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage to any two unmarried individuals regardless of gender.

Colorado’s constitution defines marriage between a man and a woman.

The debate waged over the civil union legislation often implicated the personal and the political, the rights of families and the rights of the religious.

On one side of the debate were the Democratic sponsors of the bill, gay men and women, who challenged their colleagues’s idea of fairness. On the other side, Republican leaders claimed they were protecting the will of the people who rejected a referendum to establish domestic partnerships for same-sex couples in 2006.

On one side of the debate was a coalition of LGBT activist and donors demanding dignity and equality for the 16,000 same-sex families living in Colorado. On the other side, lawyers who argued small businesses and nonprofits doing the work of churches would be burdened or ran out of the state if they did not comply with a secular progressive agenda.

In this political theater, there were plenty of heroes and villains to go around — it just depended upon who you asked.

In the Senate there was Steadman, the great orator who first hypothesized the potential inequality he and his partner would face if the worse would happen. Then it did. Dave Misner, Steadman’s partner for more than a decade, died in September 2012 after a brief battle pancreatic cancer.

Across the aisle, in the same chamber, there was state Sen. Keith Lundberg, the most vocal opponent of the civil union legislation. Despite being in the minority all three years the legislation was introduced, Lundberg would stop at nothing to weaken the bill with amendments and made no pretense: he wanted the bill to fail. In 2012, when Lundberg learned a colleague on the House Judiciary Committee was prepared to vote for the bill, giving it a path to a full up-or-down vote, he went straight to the conservative media to trash the lawmaker in hope the pressure would change her vote.

In the House there was Ferrandino, the geek with the heart of gold, who wanted nothing more than to create a security blanket for the daughter he and his partner had never met — until last summer when little Lila came into their lives through a foster care program.

There was former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, too. Never considered a deeply religious man, but conservative through and through, it was his fumbling of the waning days of the General Assembly in 2012 — putting the House in recess to block a debate of the bill — that sealed his political legacy and added fuel to the already raging fire of progressives bent on taking back the House after the Democrats lost control in 2010.

Despite the deep political divide, supporters of the bill argued at each juncture the issue was never a blue issue or a red issue, but a purple issue.

Sure enough: there were Republicans like former state Sen. Jean White and former state Rep. Don Beezley who, citing their conservative values, voted for the bill. Just as there were gay couples like Tom Carllon and Gabe Martinez who opposed the bill in 2011 because they called it a “crude parallel to marriage.”

And as mundane as the talking points and debate from both sides could be at times, there were plenty of surprises along the way.

Like Rosina Kovar’s graphic testimony on anus sex.

Or the multiple-syllabi “I told you so” of gay Republican Alexander Hornaday.

And the explanation of a Loveland Republican, B.J. Nikkel, on why she voted for the Colorado Civil Union Act in 2012: “It was simply the right thing to do.”

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