Civil unions find favor in state Senate

DENVER — Despite objections from GOP lawmakers that a bill to create civil unions for same-sex couples would infringe on religious rights and adoption services, the Democratic-controlled Colorado Senate gave preliminary approval to the controversial idea Friday.

After several hours of debate, the measure that was blocked from becoming law last year when the then Republican-controlled Colorado House prevented it from being voted on has more than enough votes to get to the governor’s desk this year.

Already, it has support from Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and all 57 Democrats in the 100-member Legislature. Even a handful of Republicans support it.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, is the only GOP lawmaker to be a co-sponsor of the bill, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, voted for it, though she does favor broader language exempting religious groups.

Its chief sponsor, though, said beyond exempting religious leaders from being required to perform civil union ceremonies, he doesn’t want the bill to be used as an excuse to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

“Senate Bill 11 respects religious freedom,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who has sponsored the measure for the past two years. “This bill does not reach into anyone’s church or mosque or synagogue. Exercise (religion) as you see fit ... but don’t claim religion as a reason the law should discriminate.”

Discrimination is exactly what will happen to religious groups if they are not exempted from the bill, too, opponents said.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, said it would require churches and individuals to accept a practice they don’t subscribe to, and it will force religious groups such as Catholic Charities out of the child adoption business.

“The justification I’ve heard for civil unions is to promote tolerance, even acceptance of the gay and lesbian citizens of Colorado,” Hill said. “The only way we can honor that intent is to ensure that it also allows for the tolerance and acceptance of those who hold strong religious convictions.”

His amendment to exempt such groups from the bill, however, went beyond religious groups.

It also drew opposition from Democrats because it also included private businesses that are “operated consistent with stated religious values ... or an individual who is exercising sincerely held religious beliefs.”

That’s a recipe for blatant discrimination, said Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

“We go down a very, very dangerous slope the moment that we say that my right to exercise my religion allows me to deny you anything,” Carroll said.

“What if I tell you in my religious belief I don’t believe you’re equal? What if in my religious belief I don’t think you should have the same rights and the same access to the same society as me? Well, then we’re in a quandary because under that thinking anything I do to grant anyone equal rights under the law would somehow violate your religion.”

Other Republican senators said the measure is nothing more than an attempt at creating gay marriage, which would be in violation of the Colorado Constitution that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, tried but failed to amend the bill to send it to the ballot, saying the voters should have the right to weigh in on the matter.

He also said the bill is fraught with legal problems, and attorneys love it because it will create more business for them.

“I felt the Earth move when this passed (in committee),” King said on the floor of the Senate.

He opposed the measure when it was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.

“I felt the Earth move from all of the lawyers in Colorado jumping for joy at the prospect of this legislation because they had found litigators’ heaven. This will be litigated a lot and at great expense to the taxpayers.”

The bill is expected to receive a final Senate vote on Monday before heading to the House.


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