Civil unions bill passes first test

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DENVER — After five hours of emotional testimony, a panel of lawmakers gave the go-ahead to Senate Bill 2, which would legalize same-sex civil unions in Colorado.

The 5-to-2 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which came down mostly along party lines just as it did a year ago — again, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was the only Republican voting yes — when the same committee approved the bill, clearing the way for its passage by the full Senate, where Democrats hold a five-seat edge, and its eventual death at the hands of GOP-controlled committee in the House.

“We applaud today’s vote to ensure that all committed couples have the tools they need to provide for the ones they love,” said Brad Clark, the executive director of One Colorado, a statewide LGBT advocacy group. “Especially in these difficult economic times, gay and lesbian couples need civil unions to take care of their families.

On Monday, many of the same gay and lesbian couples who testified in support of last year’s bill spoke again about what it would mean to have the same legal rights — estate planning, hospital visitation, shared child custody — as married couples do.

And on the other side of the debate, many of the same people who railed against the bill last year argued again about the scourge of homosexuality.

“The whole point of the bill is legal protections for gay and lesbian couples,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, the bill’s sponsor who is gay. “Not everyone has equal access to that comfort that comes in knowing that the person you love most, you want most to be there, is in fact the one with the legal right to do so.”

“This is not about redefining marriage. This doesn’t come close to marriage,” said Steadman, responding to objections from Sen. Kevin Lundberg and other Republicans who don’t believe civil unions are any different than gay marriage, which is banned under Amendment 2 to the Colorado constitution.

“In the bill it says this isn’t marriage but the bill goes on to mirror marriage in Colorado law. Do you not see this as a legal jiujitsu to just get around a term?” Lundberg asked Steadman as the hearing opened.

The issue split people of faith — the Interfaith Alliance spoke in support of civil unions, while many devout Christians explained their opposition as a matter of faith — and conservatives, splitting the Republican senators on the committee who opposed the bill and others who testified in support.

“There are many, many of us who support civil unions,” said Mario Nicolais, a Republican who spoke on behalf of a new group of conservatives who support civil unions, “Coloradans for Freedom.”

“This is about equal rights,” said Nicolais, who served as one of the Republicans on the 11-member commission that recently re-drew the state’s 100 legislative districts. “That is a principal that we live by as conservatives.

“Civil unions promote monogamous relationships. They promote families. They promote caring for families and children. You can’t go to a Republican caucus and stump speech without hearing those values espoused over and over again.”

But a room full of folks in red, all of whom argued Wednesday for LGBT couples to be treated the same as others, are worried about the legislative process this year leading to the same result as last.

While Gov. Hickenlooper urged the passage of S.B. 2 in his State of the State address, and while the Senate will move the bill ahead, the ultimate test will come in the House, where Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino, who carried the bill in the House last year, have been unable to find a Republican lawmaker to sign on to the bill, even though a few of them do support the legislation.

“It’s not going to happen,” Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, told FOX31 during Wednesday’s hearing.

Nikkel, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee that killed last year’s civil unions bill, intimated that it’s unlikely that she or her six GOP colleagues on that panel have had, or will have, a change of heart on civil unions.

“It’ll get a fair hearing,” Nikkel said. “Just as it did last year.”