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DENVER — On Monday morning, the Colorado House of Representatives did something it has never done before, debating the civil unions bill that’s been introduced for three straight years.

The debate could have happened at the end of last year’s session, after civil unions survived three successive hearings before GOP-controlled committees, but then Speaker Frank McNulty shut down the House floor on the session’s penultimate day, effectively running out the clock on the bill and 30 others.

“This marks the first day in my time here that the full House will debate civil unions,” said the sponsor, Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, who became the current House Speaker after Democrats swept competitive statehouse races last fall just months after the legislative meltdown over civil unions.

“This bill is about love, family and equality under the law.”

After more than four hours of debate, with Republicans attempting several times to amend the bill, Senate Bill 11 passed the full House on an initial voice vote, with at least two Republicans voting yes.

GOP Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, will be voting in favor of the bill.

“I’m proud of Rep. Ferrandino,” Gerou said, noting that the legislation is about personal freedom and individual responsibility. “This is a good conservative bill.”

Ferrandino, who opened debate on the bill by explaining the types of legal protections the legislation will afford to same-sex couples, noted that his Senate sponsor, Pat Steadman, and his partner, Dave Misner, who died last year, had to deal with a few additional hassles because the bill has yet to pass.

“I’m proud to be fighting for this,” Ferrandino said, who said that the General Assembly has the highest percentage of LGBT lawmakers ever — eight.

“While we are equal to the other members of this body, our love is not equal and our families are not equal,” Ferrandino said.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Dominic Moreno, D-Commerce City, has been given the honor of presiding over the debate from the Speaker’s chair.

Republicans are planning to focus their opposion to the legislation on the sponsor’s decision to strip the bill of an exemption for religious organizations that was included in last year’s bill.

“We make exceptions for religious institutions all the time,” said Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, who offered an amendment to re-insert that exemption for businesses and government agencies with religious reasons for not wanting to recognize same-sex unions.

Democrats, who argued that discrimination based on religious beliefs is still discrimination, told Republicans flatly that if they wanted that exception in the bill they should have passed last year’s version.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, offered an amendment to turn the legislation into a referred measure to next year’s ballot so that voters, not lawmakers, would decide the issue.

“The people voted in 2006 and I think they ought to be able to vote on the issue again,” Stephens said, prompting a rare show of emotion from the Speaker.

“Fundamental civil rights should not be a vote of the people,” Ferrandino responded.

McNulty, who was out of the chamber for the first hour of the debate, has yet to speak against the bill from the well; he had plenty to say about the issue back in January at a “pro-marriage” rally outside the Capitol.

With a mimimum of 39 yes votes, Senate Bill 11 is certain to be approved by the House Monday; it’ll head to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk for signing after a final, recorded House vote on Tuesday.