Civil unions bill passes first Senate hurdle

The Colorado Statesman

A Senate panel on Monday gave initial approval to a bill that would create civil unions for same-sex couples in Colorado over objections the proposal defies a constitutional ban on gay marriage enacted by voters five years ago.

Supporters of the bill said they were representing their families, waved results of a recent survey that show a solid majority of Colorado residents support civil unions and quoted Ronald Reagan. Opponents said they were representing Jesus Christ, waved heavy, leather-bound Bibles and quoted Josef Stalin.

After more than three hours of often emotional testimony in the packed Old Supreme Court Chambers — several times bringing witnesses and lawmakers to tears — the Senate Judi- ciary Committee voted 6-3 to move the bill ahead to the Senate Finance Committee. Sen. Ellen Roberts, R- Durango, joined the committee’s five Democrats voting in favor of the bill; the three other Republicans voted against. (The bill passed without fanfare out of Finance on a party-line vote Thursday and is headed to the Senate Appropriations Committee.)

While the bill is guaranteed passage out of the Democratic-controlled Senate — all 20 Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors — its fate in the Republican-controlled House is less certain. House sponsor Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, told The Colorado Statesman this week he counts five to 10 Republican votes in support but that the committee assignment could spell its doom in the chamber where Republicans hold a single-vote majority. A spokesman for House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, declined to comment on the majority’s plans for the bill once it reaches the House.

The bill — introduced last month on Valentine’s Day — establishes a sweeping set of rights and responsibilities for couples who join a civil union, covering inheritance, medical decisions, hospital visitation and other rights that automatically exist for married couples. It also creates procedures for dissolving civil unions and sets up rules for child support and visitation. The bill specifically exempts religious officials from any requirement to perform civil unions and doesn’t include numerous legal benefits and obligations — its sponsors have said they number in the thousands — available to married couples.

“This bill ensures that everyone in Colorado has equal protection under the law,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 172.

Introducing testimony on the bill, Steadman acknowledged some objections. “There are some that feel the bill doesn’t go far enough,” he said, adding that he personally favors gay marriage. “And they’re right, but that’s no reason not to pass 172. Others believe the bill violates the Constitution — they’re wrong.”

In 2006, Colorado voters approved Amendment 43, which restricts marriage to opposite-sex couples. The same year, voters shot down Referendum I, an initiative that would have established domestic partnerships.

“The ballot initiative only addressed marriage, it explicitly didn’t reject civil unions,” Steadman said, arguing that his bill successfully threads the needle between what he can achieve with legislation and what the state Constitution forbids.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, the bill’s most vocal opponent, said he wasn’t satisfied. Calling the bill “an attempt to make virtually a carbon copy” of marriage, he told Steadman, “You’ve got a very hard case to make that this isn’t in violation of the Colorado Constitution that recognizes marriage as between one man and one woman.”

The same year voters banned gay marriage, Lundberg was among those pushing an initiative that would have also banned civil unions, but that measure failed to make the ballot.

Colorado Springs residents Shawna Kemppainen and Lisa Green kicked off a run of testimony from couples who said the bill addresses problems they’ve encountered.

“I’m here today because I’m in love and partnered with Lisa,” Kemppainen said. “We’re committed to spending the rest of our lives together. I believe that it is my responsibility to bring the best of myself to her. To be honest with you, the presence of a law will not impact that fact. What civil unions will change for us is the ability to keep more secure and safe.”

Noting that Green suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, Kemppainen said the bill’s provisions involving medical care and insurance would be particularly important to the couple. “This is really about us being able to take care of each other and have responsibility for each other,” she said.

Fran and Anna Simon raised similar concerns.

“Why should I have to fear that I could miss that last 10 minutes of Anna’s life in an emergency room because a fax hasn’t arrived yet?” Anna Simon asked after acknowledging that some of the bill’s provisions can be secured by filling out lots of paperwork. Still, she said, the two are “an invisible couple in the eyes of the law,” without “the legal tools other couples enjoy.”

Her partner, Fran Simon, concluded by saying, “Colorado has the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

A handful of Republicans voiced support for the legislation.

“This bill is not a partisan issue,” said Alexander Hornaday, vice president of the Colorado Log Cabin Republicans and an officer in the Denver County Republican Party.

“As a Republican, I’d like to begin with a quote from Ronald Reagan,” he said. “The family has always been the cornerstone of American society.” He continued: “What we have here is an opportunity to encourage and solidify stable, long-term relationships.”

Jerry Shelton, a gay Republican from the Western Slope, told the committee he “got razzed more for having a McCain-Palin sign than my rainbow flag” and urged members to support the bill.

A gay couple from Lakewood said they opposed the bill because it fell short of establishing full same-sex marriage.

Calling civil unions “a bizarre, crude, parallel form of marriage,” Tom Carllon asked the committee to block the bill because it would stand in the way of overturning Amendment 43 and offer gay couples “crumbs instead of the entire cake.”

“Civil unions do nothing to further marriage equality,” he said. “They do nothing but confuse the voter.” Instead, he suggested, “It would be more straightforward asking voters to repeal the one-man, one-woman constitutional standard.”

His partner, Gabe Martinez, agreed, calling the proposal “misguided, it is an ill-conceived bill.” Concluding, he said, “There’s no denying this bill is a questionable and stealth attempt to bypass the will of voters.”

It was an argument repeated by several opponents, including representatives from the Catholic Archdiocese and Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Pastor Roger Anghis of Littleton’s Prevailing Word Ministries brandished a Bible and admonished the senators. “You should find this bill, when you put it up against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be reprehensible on all levels,” he said.

“American society is based on the family,” Anghis continued. “The family has always been, and will always be, one man and one woman. It will never be anything else.” He called the civil unions bill “acceptance of a deviant debauchery and a laughingstock in the eyes of God,” pleading with lawmakers to “not embrace something that God Almighty has called an abomination.”

He concluded with what he said was proof the Bible forbids civil unions: “God says if you stand stripped naked before the mirror and your plumbing is on the outside, you are a male.”

But the most vivid — and graphic — testimony came from Rosalina Kovar, who said she represented herself and her grandchildren.

Quoting a Colorado Springs-based doctor, Kovar said she wanted lawmakers to understand that “the anus is an exit, it is not an entrance” and added that the organ’s “tight sphincter” was there for a reason: “Keep out.”

She went on to quote Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, warning that last century’s communists hoped to undermine spiritual life so that America would collapse from within.

Her remarks took on a life of their own on the Internet after Daniel Gonzales, who also testified in favor of the bill, posted an online video featuring highlights from her testimony.

“We’re here to debate civil law, and a lot of people showed up to debate Leviticus,” Steadman said after the hearing.

But Lundberg kept his stated concerns directed at the bill’s legal status.

“This is a fundamental change for Colorado law and for the culture in the state,” he said. “It is also contrary to what the voters did say in 2006.”

Calling the bill “as close to marriage as can be constructed in Colorado law without using the word marriage,” he urged fellow lawmakers to consider their actions carefully. “This is not just a legal tweak, it’s a new road that we’re heading the state down.”

The other two Republicans who voted against the bill — Sens. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, and Steve King, R- Grand Junction — remained silent except for their votes. But the Democrats and lone Republican supporting the bill described their decisions.

“I chose not to just live with discrimination, and I chose to work very hard with every fiber of my body to work against discrimination,” said Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who added that she completes the “liberty and justice for all” line at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance by whispering to herself, “Not just for some.”

Calling it “a challenging issue,” Roberts, an estate lawyer, said the “long and intense conversations about medical decisions” she has had with couples leads her to believe the bill is necessary because of the responsibilities it enacts, especially when it comes to caring for children.

“I saw no difference between the love and commitment that existed between (gay and lesbian) couples than what existed between heterosexual couples,” she said.

Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, and committee chair Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, both said they thought the bill doesn’t go far enough — they both voiced support for full gay marriage — but supported it nonetheless.

“It does take steps,” Guzman said, arguing that, “it takes a long time to bring justice and equality to each and every person.”

Steadman said approval of the bill would make Colorado the 17th state to establish same-sex unions following adoption of similar legislation by Illinois and Hawaii earlier this year. At the same time, lawmakers in New Hampshire are debating whether to throw out that state’s two-year-old gay marriage law.

A Public Policy Polling survey released last month showed overwhelming support for civil unions or gay marriage among Colorado voters. It found 40 percent support gay marriage, 32 percent back a legal equivalent such as civil unions and 25 percent oppose legal status for gay partnerships.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com