Republican group comes out in support of civil unions in state

The Colorado Statesman

A newly minted Republican group is garnering support for what it feels has been a missing voice in the debate on the legalization of civil unions in Colorado.

“Coloradans for Freedom” enters the scene less than one year after a bill to legalize civil unions was voted down by Republicans on party lines in the state’s House Judiciary Committee last March.

Coloradans for Freedom spokesman Mario Nicolais, a Jefferson County attorney who served as a Commissioner on the Colorado Reapportionment Commission, said the group exists primarily to serve as a resource for Republicans and anyone else interested in a conservative argument for civil unions.

The group held a reception on Thursday at the home of prominent Denver lobbyist and public affairs specialist Maria Garcia Berry.

Former state Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Evergreen, was a keynote speaker at the event. He believes that the issue of civil unions concerns the protection of individual liberties.

“There are a sizable number of Republicans who view this as a freedom issue,” Witwer said. “The government’s role is to maintain order, but beyond that it is to maximize freedom.”

State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, author of last year’s unsuccessful bill to legalize civil unions, called the formation of the new group “welcomed assistance.” Steadman plans to introduce a bill this session that he described as “very similar” to his last one in support of civil unions.

“I think [the formation of the group] is further evidence of what public opinion polls have been telling us for some time, which is that this has become a mainstream issue that enjoys broad support from people of all walks of life,” Steadman said.

Polls released in December of 2011 by Public Policy Polling found that 76 percent of Coloradans favored same-sex civil unions.

Nicolais said that while the group was not formed with the intention of affecting Steadman’s civil unions legislation, it is open to engaging with the state Senator and offering their insight on any civil unions bill he plans to introduce at the legislature this year.

“We’d want to take a look at [the bill] and make sure it fits our conservative principles and that it doesn’t overreach,” Nicolais said. “A lot of what we’re focused on is that civil unions are really just the interaction between two people and their government. There are a lot of people who want to get into a debate about marriage, but we draw a distinct line between [marriage and civil unions].”

Steadman, who is openly gay, said that SB11-172 drew a clear distinction between marriage and civil unions, and that his next bill will have those features as well. He is confident that a bill legalizing civil unions will make it to the governor’s desk sooner rather than later.

“The question is, ‘Is it this year or is it next year?’” Steadman said. “If this was a multiple choice test, the answers would be 2012 or 2013.”

Nicolais said that Coloradans for Freedom has no interest in creating conflict within the Republican Party. “We are not going to try and strong-arm anyone or pick fights. We will not be involved in primaries or anything of that nature. Our primary focus is to provide a resource for people who believe in [civil unions] or want to know more about it.”

Nicolais added, “This is not about the power of politics, this is about the power of ideas.”

Jessica Haverkate, executive director of Colorado Family Action, a group promoting Christian values, derided Coloradans For Freedom in a statement emailed to The Colorado Statesman.

“The voice of the people defining marriage as between one man and one woman should weigh more with state lawmakers than fractional GOP support for civil unions,” Haverkate said. “Voters spoke loud and clear in favor of marriage and against a measure equivalent to civil unions in 2006.”

Colorado Amendment 43, titled the “Definition of Marriage Act” added a section to the Colorado Constitution that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The amendment appeared on the ballot in November of 2006 and was approved by 55 percent of voters.

Witwer rejects the notion that government should play a role in defining marriage.

“In my mind, marriage is a sacrament,” Witwer said. “There are no state statutes on infant baptism, or last rights, or anything like that. Marriage is a sacramental union and civil unions are a legal construction.”

Witwer also cited “Hollywood marriages” and “48-hour Vegas marriages” as having a much more negative impact on the sanctity of marriage than gay couples in long-term committed relationships.

Lobbyist Berry, who hosted the reception Thursday night at her east Denver home, pointed to her long history of supporting gay rights. In 1992, she served as treasurer for the Equal Protection Campaign, an organized effort to defeat Amendment 2. The controversial amendment, which was approved with 53.4 percent of the vote that year, would have prevented cities, towns, and counties from enacting legislation that defined gay and lesbian citizens as a “protected class” in an effort to curb discrimination. It was appealed, and the issue eventually resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 6-3 in 1996 that Colorado’s Amendment 2 was unconstitutional.

Garcia Berry said she is concerned that there is a lot of misinformation preventing Republicans from supporting civil unions this year. She feels the issue should not be considered as partisan.

“I had a close cousin who was gay and faced a lot of challenges in his life because of that, so I feel very deeply and passionately about this issue,” Garcia Berry said.

Ben@coloradostatesman.com