Civil unions proposal clears first legislative hurdle

DENVER — Had former House Speaker Frank McNulty allowed a final vote on civil unions last year, he might still hold the gavel and a Republican majority.

Had that happened, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Pat Steadman, might have had time to form a civil union with his long-time partner, Dave Misner, who died from cancer over the summer, months after the legislative session ended.

Had that happened, Steadman wouldn’t be back at the Capitol this year with a modified bill that will recognize same-sex civil unions for thousands of committed Colorado couples, without any exemptions for those with religious objections.

“This is about love,” said a heartbroken Steadman on Wednesday.

Had civil unions been approved last May, Fran and Anna Simon and several others wouldn’t have been back at the Capitol Wednesday afternoon telling their now familiar stories.

The Simons, for the first time, brought their five-year-old son, Jeremy, along with them to see, as Jeremy explained, “how to make a law.”

“We also knew we wouldn’t be leaving in tears this time,” Fran Simon said prior to the hearing.

With Democrats now controlling both chambers, civil unions supporters attended Wednesday’s hearing with the certainty that the change they have fought for over several decades, is now at hand, just a handful of votes away.

“Today you have the opportunity to finish what should have been done nine months ago,” One Colorado’s Brad Clark told the committee at the outset of Wednesday’s hearing. “You have the opportunity to provide thousands of couples across the state with the legal protections they need to protect their families.”

Committee votes 3-2 in favor of civil unions

The first vote came late Wednesday afternoon — and it came as no surprise to anyone — when the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-to-2 on party lines to send Senate Bill 11 on to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Bringing down the gavel on the vote was Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County, elected in November, who had sat on the other side of the room the past two years and testified twice about how the bill’s legal protections would help support his partner and their son.

“It’s a very different year, a very exciting year,” Ulibarri told FOX31 Denver prior to the hearing. “We have folks here who are willing to stand up for committed couples and there will be a very different result this year.”

That new political reality didn’t stop several opponents of civil unions from showing up and stating their objections on the record.

“We’re going to do our best to protect marriage,” said Father Bill Carmody. “The church doesn’t change based on political persuasions, based on who wins elections. We speak the truth, and the truth doesn’t change. Marriage is between one man and one woman. And whatever other relationships you have, you cannot call it marriage. We don’t have that right.”

Opponents threaten recall

While some angry residents threatened lawmakers supporting civil unions with recall, other Republicans argued that the bill’s lack of an exemption for adoption agencies not wanting to work with gay and lesbian couples showed a lack of respect for people’s religious convictions.

“If someone wants to recall us, let them do it,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, a co-sponsor of the bill, who read a letter at the end of Wednesday’s hearing from a citizen in Loveland calling her lifestyle “disgusting”.

“I’m more proud of who I am and the legislator I was elected to be. We are here to make laws; we are here to pass good laws,” she said.

A few opponents quoted scripture, arguing that if supporting lawmakers aren’t judged by lawmakers, God will have the final say.

One man, angry that the panel appeared to have its mind made up, called the proceedings a “kangaroo court.”

Rosina Kovar, whose “the anus is an exit” testimony two years ago made her a brief YouTube sensation, went back to 2006 and the voters’ refusal of Referendum I, which would have recognized domestic partnerships, and simultaneous passage of Amendment 43, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.

“This is a bullying bill against those of us who believe in God’s teaching of sexuality,” Kovar said. “This is an unhealthy behavior. We have 50,000 new cases of HIV/AIDS every year.”

Pointing out just how fast public opinion can change, Sen. Irene Aguilar later reminded Kovar and others who referred to past votes against LGBT equality that voters in 2006 also defeated a proposal to legalize marijuana.

Steadman: “This is about love”

Steadman responded by telling Kovar that, due to reapportionment, she now lives in his senate district and that most of the constituents he’s heard from support civil unions.

“This is about the legal recognition of all loving couples,” Steadman said earlier in the hearing.

“When two people are fortunate enough to have found someone that they want to share the rest of their life with, why should the state of Colorado stand in the way?”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, whose gay brother died of AIDS, testified in support of the measure and argued that all people should be equal under the law.

 “It is too late for Senate Bill 11 to help my brother’s partner,” Hancock said. “But it is not too late to correct a fundamental wrong in our society today.”

Jack Finlaw, general counsel for Gov. John Hickenlooper, told the committee that civil unions is a top priority for the administration.

And Mario Nicolais, the Republican attorney who predicted last May that “civil unions will soon pass, and so too will the House Republican majority,” testified again that civil unions is in line with the conservative belief in liberty.

“When you abdicate liberty and equality for others, you lose those principles for yourself and you become nothing more than a slave to fear,” Nicolais said.

“For those who are afraid of political repercussions, I say — grow a spine.”