Steadman stands firm in final civil unions Senate debate

DENVER — Leading his final Senate floor debate on civil unions, Sen. Pat Steadman was sentimental, sardonic and defiant, ignoring calls from Republicans to amend the bill to include an exemption for religious organizations and businesses that don’t want to recognize legal state-sanctioned commitments between gay and lesbian couples.

During a 15-minute speech at the outset of the three-hour debate, Steadman wove the language of traditional marriage vows into a lengthy soliloquy about love and loss, coming just five months after the loss of his own long-time partner — and nine months after last year’s House GOP majority shut down legislative proceedings as a last resort in order to kill a civil unions bill that actually included protections for religious objectors.

“Well, third time’s the charm, isn’t it?” began Steadman, alluding to the bill’s anticlimactic legislative journey this year in a building where Democrats now control the House, the Senate and the governor’s office.

“We are gathered here today to debate the worthiness of our fellow Coloradans and their loves, and their dignity and their rights.”

The result was never in doubt; and all 20 Senate Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango, voted for Senate Bill 11, which will head to the House after a final Senate vote on Monday.

But, despite that, the debate — mostly about the religious exemption — was robust, after first-year Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, offered an amendment to restore religious exemptions to the bill.

“Religious freedom is woven into the fabric of our lives,” said Hill, whose amendment would have applied to adoption agencies and to any private business whose owners operate in line with their religious convictions.

“To undermine the most basic of rights, the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment, on the path to expanded rights for gays and lesbians, leads us down the path of the very worst form of government policy, that which takes rights away from some in the process of granting them to others.

“Equal rights cannot be extended to gays and lesbians while taking religious freedoms away from others.”

A number of GOP lawmakers, notably Sens. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch and Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs, strode to the well in support of Hill’s amendment.

Interestingly, Roberts also went to the well and expressed concerns about the amendment, asking Hill whether religious hospitals would be allowed to deny gay couples visitation rights that will be afforded to them under this law.

But Steadman had made it clear at the hearing’s outset that any Republican effort to restore the religious exemption wasn’t happening on his watch.

“What to say to those who claim that religion requires them to discriminate? I tell you what I’d say: ‘get thee to a nunnery, and live there. Go live a monastic life, away from modern society, away from people you can’t see as equals to yourself’.

“Go some place and be as judgmental as you like, go inside your church, establish separate water fountains if you like. But don’t tell me that your free exercise of religion requires the state of Colorado to establish separate water fountains.”

During his turn in the well, Lambert shot back at Steadman, arguing that the sponsor of a bill about inclusion wasn’t practicing what he was preaching.

“Telling us to get thee to a nunnery?” Lambert said. “That doesn’t sound very inclusive to me.”