Senate panel approves civil-unions measure; bill likely to become law

DENVER — The audience cheered Wednesday immediately after the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure to grant civil unions to same-sex couples.

That reaction came after hours of testimony on Senate Bill 11, which is expected to get through the Colorado Legislature easily this year, given the Democratic Party’s new majority in both chambers.

For Sen. Pat Steadman, who’s introduced the bill three times now, the issue had become more personal. Not long after losing a battle to get the bill through the Legislature last year, the Denver Democrat lost his longtime partner of 11 years, David Misner, to pancreatic cancer last fall.

“In the past, I’ve argued in great length of the legal intricacies of family law and probate law and insurance law, of the children’s code, of all the numerous provisions replete throughout our Colorado Revised Statutes that confer legal benefits and protections and responsibilities on married spouses,” Steadman told the committee. “For me this year, this bill’s more about love than legal technicalities. For two people who are lucky enough to have each other and to want to spent their lives together, let not our laws intercede.”

Under the bill, any two unmarried adults regardless of gender may apply to a county clerk and recorder for a civil union license. The bill, which heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee next, does not require any rabbi, priest, minister or any official of a religious organization to validate a civil union.

But unlike last year’s measure, that’s as far as this year’s bill goes in exempting anyone from its provisions.

Steadman said he doesn’t want others to discriminate against same-sex couples because they object to a gay or lesbian lifestyle. Doing so could create a situation where businesses are allowed to post signs in their windows saying, “No Gays and Lesbians Allowed,” a scenario reminiscent of “Whites Only” signs of the 1950s, he said.

“If you look back to the arguments that were debated years ago when those civil rights laws came about, this same argument was made then: It’s our religious belief we shouldn’t have to serve these people or live with these people or employ these people,” he said.

Opponents, however, said not including such exemptions will lead to reverse discrimination against people who have the right to not be part of a union between gays, lesbians or transgender people.

Mark Rohlena, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado, said it will impact groups in many other ways, too. His group handles child adoption services for numerous Colorado counties, and the measure could force his group out of that business, he said.

“Our adoption guidelines require that we place a child with only married couples (and) our definition of marriage mirrors that of Article 2, Section 31 of the Colorado Constitution, the union of one man and one woman” Rohlena told the committee. “It is no secret that the Catholic Church has, for unbroken centuries, maintained the same teaching on marriage that it does today.”

Other opponents said the bill flies in the face of Colorado voters’ rejection of Amendment I in 2006, which would have created domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver and a committee member, said attitudes have changed since then, pointing out that in 2006, Colorado voters also rejected legalizing recreational use of marijuana.

Some opponents characterized the bill as “a canard,” “a lie” or “an outrage,” while others called the committee considering it a “kangaroo court” and a “bunch of bullies.”

“This to me is a bullying bill against those of us who believe in God’s teaching on homosexual behavior,” said Denver resident Rosina Kovar. “This is an unhealthy behavior. We have 50,000 new cases of AIDS every year in the United States and the homosexual community makes up 3.4 percent of the population. In Colorado, men who have sex with men make up 92 percent of the syphilis cases. All you’re pushing is this behavior.”

Regardless of those objections, the bill passed on a party-line 3-2 vote.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, and a committee member, voted against the bill, saying it would open the state up to numerous lawsuits.

Much like is already done with marriages, the measure calls on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to create and issue civil union license forms and allows county clerks to charge a $7 fee to cover filing charges in addition to the $20 fee collected for the Colorado Domestic Abuse Fund, which also is charged of married couples.

The rights and responsibilities granted to same-sex couples under the measure include such things as the ability to file a claim for wrongful death, prohibiting against discrimination based on spousal status, and granting access to the same probate laws as married couples in dealing with estates and inheritance and child custody cases.

The measure also outlines procedures for dissolving a civil union that is much like a divorce, including contesting it in court.

The idea cleared the Senate last year only to be caught up in a political battle in the then GOP-controlled House. Although Rep. Mark Ferrandino, the Denver Democrat who also is sponsoring the bill, had enough votes to get it through three House committees, then House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, used parliamentary tactics to prevent a vote on it.

This year things are expected to be different. Ferrandino, who is sponsoring the measure in the House again, is the new speaker and McNulty has no leadership role at all.


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