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Colorado civil unions bill clears first vote in state House

Colorado civil unions bill clears first vote in state House

DENVER — In a historic first, the Colorado’s House of Representatives gave its initial OK to a bill that would establish relationship recognition for same-sex couples.

The approval came after more than four hours of debate — a debate three years in the making. A formal vote expected on Tuesday, signals the last legislative lap before the bill is signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, which he has promised to do.

Out gay lawmakers Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, left, Reps. Dominic Moreno and Sue Schafer.
Photo: Sean Mullins, Out Front Colorado

“This bill is about three things,” Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino said introducing the bill. “It is about love, family and equality under the law.”

He added, “While we are equal in many ways, our love is not equal. Our families are not equal.”

An amendment, to the civil union bill was introduced “in the spirit of compromise,” immediately by Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton.

The amendment, a major re-write of the bill, would have provided religious exemptions to county clerks and public businesses and child protection services.

Moreover, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he favored the amendment because it would strengthen Colorado’s current designated beneficiary law instead of creating new law with civil unions.

“Senate Bill 11 is an attempt to call same-sex marriage a civil union,” Gardner said.

The amendment failed.

Three other amendments to the Colorado Civil Union Act were introduced by the GOP. The first would have given conscience exemptions to child placement agencies. Another would have provided religious exemptions to almost any organization — public or private — religious exemptions if they could prove they worked under a religious rule of law. The fourth GOP amendment would have sent the question of civil unions to the ballot.

All three additional GOP amendments failed.

The question of whether voters should approve civil unions at the ballot brought out the most emotion.

Gardner argued asking voters to approve civil unions was the thoughtful thing to do.

“To say that love should be voted on by the people is just sad,” Ferrandino said. “That’s not right.”

Gardner counted, “I understand your emotion, Mr. Speaker, but let me say, I hope that in your heart that the state can neither validate nor invalidate your love.”

The bill received bipartisan support.

Rep. Cheri Geru, R-Evergreen called it a “good conservative bill.”

The Colorado Civil Union Act, first introduced in 2011 by gay Denver Democrats state Sen. Pat Steadman and Ferrandino, had been denied access to the full floor of the chamber by House GOP leadership in the two years leading up to Monday’s debate.

In 2011, the bill was killed by a House Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

The following year, state Rep. B.J. Nikkel, a Loveland Republican, joined all the Democrats on the same panel in supporting the measure, breathing new life into the politically charged legislation.

But in one of the most shocking conclusions of a regular session of the state’s General Assembly, then-Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and his leadership team, put the full House in recess until the constitutional clock ran out on the bill.

Democrats had attempted a procedural measure of their own to force a debate on the bill.

Despite a second chance to debate the bill, House Republicans sent another version of the legislation to a kill committee during a 2012 special session called by Hickenlooper.

Opponents of the bill have claimed the legislation thwarts the will of the voters who in 2006 approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage between a man and a woman. The same election year, a referendum to create domestic partnerships was killed at the ballot box.

Further, opponents claim the bill does not protect religious liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment. Small business owners who provide services in the wedding industry will be forced to sanction same-sex relationships despite their religious beliefs.

Supporters of the bill point to a sea-change of public opinion on the matter — recent polls show 70 percent of Coloradans support relationship recognition for same-sex couples — and argue Colorado’s public accommodation laws already prohibit discrimination based of sexual orientation in the public sector.

And while a raucous debate can be expected, Democrats are now in control of the both chambers of the Statehouse and the governor’s mansion. The bill’s fate has already been decided and civil union licenses will begin being issued May 1.

“This is an urgent matter that needs to be settled here and now,” said Steadman during a February debate in the state Senate.

The bill previously cleared that chamber with bipartisan support.

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