Civil unions legislation signed into law; third time is a charm

The Colorado Statesman

For Denver couple Fran and Anna Simon, it was the end of one particular journey that began on Valentine’s Day two years ago, when the Colorado Civil Union Act was first introduced in the legislature. The couple appeared at rally after rally, committee hearing after com-mittee hearing, each time bearing a tall stack of documents they said had taken hundreds of hours and cost thousands of dollars in order to put into place some of the rights enjoyed by married couples in Colorado. If the civil unions law were in place, they argued, they could duplicate all that effort by simply filling out a license at their county clerk’s office.

Gov. John Hickenlooper high-fives Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, one of the prime sponsors of the Colorado Civil Union Act, right after signing the bill on March 21 at History Colorado in Denver. Bill sponsors House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, applaud.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Last Thursday, that possibility became a certainty as Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the bill in front of hundreds of elated supporters, who filled the ground floor of the History Colorado museum and lined the balconies overlooking the atrium. The Simons — they say they’re recognized now and then at coffee shops after so many appearances in the news, and that their fans usually say, simply, “thank you” — stood ringside as the governor, surrounded by the bill’s sponsors and supporters, used a dozen pens to affix his name to the document as a member of the crowd shouted, “It’s happening!”

Carolyn Cathey and the Rev. Dr. Nori Rost, both of Colorado Springs, are delighted that the civil unions bill is about to be signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper. Rost, a minister at All Soul's Unitarian Church, said she’s excited that all the couples she has joined in commitment ceremonies will have the chance to access legal rights under the new law.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Following the signing, Hickenlooper reached across the table to shake hands with Jeremy, the Simons’ 5-year-old son, who testified along with his moms at committee hearings this year. After chatting briefly, Hickenlooper rounded up one of the pens he’d used to sign the bill and handed it to the lad, whose smile grew even larger.

As the civil unions bill signing is about to start, bill sponsor Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, makes her way through a group of lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora; Sens. Mary Hodge, D-Aurora and Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City; and Reps. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Prompted by his parents to summarize why the family had taken the afternoon to attend the event, Jeremy grinned. “We’re seeing Gov. Hickenlooper sign our law,” he said, even as he stumbled over a syllable or two of the governor’s name.

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, two of the prime sponsors of the civil unions bill, smile for a snapshot before the bill is signed into law.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Anna Simon, if anything, displayed an even wider smile.

“It’s a big exhalation, it’s a big sigh of relief to have this done and for these protections to be in place for our family,” she said, hugging Fran and Jeremy. “We’re grateful to have played our very small part in the passage of this bill and we’re so happy this day is here.”

Gay rights pioneer Tim Gill, right, and his husband, Scott Miller, survey the crowd at the bill signing ceremony for the Colorado Civl Union Act.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

She added that she’d remained confident even as the bill died during its first two legislative outings, when majority Republicans first killed it in a House committee and then in dramatic fashion prevented the bill from reaching the House floor on the next-to-last night of last year’s session. (After Democrats retook the majority in last year’s election, its passage was certain, and it cleared both chambers with bipartisan support.)

Reps. Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, look to their Republican colleague Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, after a speaker acknowledges the GOP lawmakers who have voted for the civil unions bill that is about to be signed into law.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We knew it was inevitable. Progress takes time,” Simon said.

“Dearly beloved,” began bill sponsor Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who was interrupted by sustained applause and laughter before he welcomed the crowd to the ceremony. He traced the long journey from a gloomy night in 1992, when state voters approved the anti-gay Amendment 2 — as a young attorney, Steadman was part of the legal team that appealed the ballot measure to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned it in 1996 — to the history museum, “Where,” he proclaimed, “we about to witness real inclusion in the fabric of Colorado society.” Lest anyone miss the point of the location, he added, “Today, we’re going to make history.”

Former state Democratic Party vice chair Vivian Stovall checks out her view of the stage where Gov. John Hickenlooper will sign the civil unions bill. She said she plans to snap some pictures and send them to her relatives around the country.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Hickenlooper, who called on lawmakers to pass the bill in his State of the State address this year, made the same point about history in his remarks before signing the bill, and then added, “This is the beginning of the whole country changing. It’s going to keep going, it’s not going to stop in Colorado, but I like to think this is a crucial point, a very crucial point.”

The One Colorado crew surrounds Gov. John Hickenlooper after he signed the civil unions bill into law. From left, lobbyist Adam Eichberg, Daniel Ramos, Ashley Wheeland, Jon Monteith, Jessie Pocock, Preston Dickey, Lia Sperandeo, Gissel Uribe, Nina Esch, Hickenlooper, Brad Clark and lobbyist Mary Marchun. The gay rights organization pushed the bill the last three legislative sessions.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Recalling how much times have changed, the former restaurateur said that he’d promoted a gay employee to be general manager of his Wynkoop Brewing Co. in the early 1990s and got some unexpected reactions.

“A couple customers came up and wanted to see the owner,” Hickenlooper said. “I thought they were going to compliment us on what a great job he was doing, and they said they weren’t going to come to our business anymore. A waitress was standing beside me and she says, ‘You know, that’s not going to bother any of us at all.’”

Anna and Fran Simon and their son Jeremy are eager with anticipation to watch Gov. John Hickenlooper sign the civil unions bill. The family testified multiple times in support of the bill and plan to file for a civil union in May.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The law takes effect on May 1, when same-sex couples will be able to apply for civil union licenses that confer many of the same legal benefits, protections and responsibilities available to married couples.

After the Colorado law takes effect, there will be 10 states offering civil unions or domestic partnerships to residents: California, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin. Ten other states allow gay marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington, along with the District of Columbia (California voters overturned the state’s gay marriage policy with a ballot measure that was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.)

Another of the bill’s prime sponsors, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said that the law has special meaning to him and his husband, Greg Wertsch, since the two have begun the process of adopting a toddler.

“Now that we have a daughter, this issue has become even more personal,” Ferrandino said. “To know that after the governor signs this, to know that she’s going to have the protections just like every other family, it makes my heart warm.”

Ferrandino recognized Steadman’s partner, Dave Misner, who died last summer after a swift bout with pancreatic cancer. “He would be so proud standing right here with you,” he said.

Then Ferrandino nodded across the aisle: “As Democrats, it hasn’t actually been that hard to be — some would say easy to be — leading the charge, but we’ve had a lot of courageous Republicans in the House and the Senate who were willing to stand up and do the right thing,” he said, introducing state Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who stood among the Democrats on stage. Then he went on to thank the other Republicans who had cast votes in favor of civil unions over the past three sessions: Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock; former state Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Don Beezley, R-Broomfield; state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; and former state Sens. Jean White, R-Hayden, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

“There is a Jewish saying, what it says is if a funeral procession meets a wedding procession on a narrow street, the funeral procession is to step aside and let the wedding procession go forth,” said the other prime Senate sponsor, state Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, acknowledging that the Capitol had been gripped by news of the murder of Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements two nights earlier. “In our great sadness over the untimely death of Tom Clements, we respectfully come here and celebrate, because this is about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

State Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, the other prime House sponsor, said that the crowd should never forget the “persistence, courage and sacrifice of LGBT giants” who had paved the way, naming activists, victims of anti-gay violence, and the high court for striking down Amendment 2.

Taking the stage again for final words before Hickenlooper signed the bill, Steadman recalled how that 1992 vote had spurred a generation of activists.

“I was there on election night in 1992,” he said, “that painful night in 1992 when voters said the rights of lesbians and gay men in our society didn’t matter, and that in our state they could not be protected and they were excluded in our constitution. That was a very tragic moment, and yet it gave us so much hope and so much momentum moving forward, because we didn’t take that defeat sitting down. We were in the streets and we were in the courtroom, we were in the halls of the Capitol building.”

Then he quoted Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion overturning the Colorado amendment: “‘A state cannot so deem a class of persons a stranger to its laws.’ And when you think about that exclusion, that intentional omission of persons in our society whose legal rights were written out of the constitution, or who were omitted from our statutes, when we talk about family law and probate law and property law — we today are remedying an exclusion that has gone on too long. With this signature that’s about to occur on this bill today, Gov. Hickenlooper will make sure that, for once and for all, LGBT Coloradans are not strangers to our laws.”

Steadman, who has been clear that he seeks full marriage equality for same-sex couples in Colorado — it’s forbidden now by a 2006 constitutional amendment — told the crowd that the civil unions bill, while “admittedly imperfect,” was nonetheless worth celebrating wholeheartedly.

“There is still work to do,” he said. “But this law provides real and meaningful protections to families and couples and children all across our state. This is absolutely an important milestone on our road to equality. I’m proud to have been part of it and to have worked so long for this day.”