Illustration by Shan Wells

Colorado civil unions clear hurdle

Durango’s Sen. Ellen Roberts one of few Republicans in support
by Tracy Chamberlin

The issue of civil unions has once again has found its way to the floor of the Colorado Senate. Gay couples across the state are one step closer to having the same rights and legal recognition as married couples of the opposite sex.

The Colorado Civil Union Act passed a key committee vote Feb. 15 and is headed for a full vote on the floor of the state senate.

“Legislators need to do what is right legally,” said Martha Elbert, president for the local chapter of PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. “Ensure equal rights for all citizens – and leave matters of the spiritual meaning of ‘marriage’ for the individuals tying the knot.”

The proposed act, Senate Bill 12-002, provides for the “authorization of civil unions.” Introduced by Sen. Patrick Steadman, D-Denver, the bill allows “any two unmarried adults, regardless of gender, to enter into a civil union.”

It addresses inheritance and survivorship issues, parental rights, child support, medical and end-of-life decisions, and property rights.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the bill by a 5-2 vote with one Republican joining the four Democrats on the panel. That one Republican was Ellen Roberts, the state senator for District 6 from Durango.4
Roberts has been an outspoken supporter of civil unions in the past. She voted in support of a similar bill to make it to the judiciary committee in 2011.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocates have not only praised Roberts, they have donated campaign money.

One Colorado LGBT advocacy group gave $1,000 to Roberts and another Republican cohort for supporting an earlier bill in 2011, according to Out Front Colorado.

That attempt, Senate Bill 172, also made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the floor for a full vote. It passed the senate, but died in the House Judiciary Committee by a 6-5 party-line vote.

“For PFLAG chapters throughout Colorado, this has been a long, wearying battle,” Elbert added. “But we just keep after it.”
The difference this time for Elbert and other supporters of the bill is a combination of support and momentum, according to an aid from Roberts’ office.

In the 2011 vote, several House members were believed to be on the fence, and could have a change of heart this year. Roberts’ aid said they would not rule it out.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has also shown support for civil unions, addressing the issue in his State of the State speech in January.

Several other states across the country have recently enacted civil union and same-sex marriage laws, creating momentum in support of the issue.

Hawaii’s civil union law went into effect at the first of the year. Delaware also started performing ceremonies Jan. 1.

Gay couples also won a battle recently in California, which began granting same-sex marriage licenses in 2008 only to have them banned few months later by Proposition 8. However, Prop 8 was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Feb. 7 in San Francisco. The court stated in its decision that the ban, which defined marriage as between one man and one woman, “had no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California.”

In addition, Iowa, Vermont, the District of Columbia and New Hampshire began tackling the issue in 2009. New York and Rhode Island passed laws last year.

With several states choosing to support same-sex marriages and civil unions in the past few years, the momentum appears to be headed in that direction.

As for Senate Bill 12-002, it recently moved through the Appropriations Committee on Feb. 16. Financially, it would be worth more than $60,000. It is expected to bring in $81,000 of additional revenues for the 2012-13 fiscal year and cost the state $18,000 in expenditures.

The bill now makes its way to the senate floor, where it is expected to be voted on in the beginning of March. It is expected to pass, according to Roberts’ aid, and then heads to the other side of the state capital – the House of Representatives.

This is where the real battle is predicted to take place. Republicans hold a slight majority in the house, and if they stick to a straight-line party vote, as they did in 2011, the bill could die exactly where it did one year ago. If any of the house Republicans join Roberts in crossing party lines, it could find its way to the house floor for a full vote.

Opponents of the bill not only refer to marriage as traditionally between one man and one woman, but also turn to Amendment 43 for support.
Passed in 2006 by Colorado voters, Amendment 43 defines marriage between a man and a woman. Opponents of civil unions raised this issue during recent hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying the proposed act circumvented the amendment.

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Denver, has been an outspoken critic of the bill but said it would get a fair hearing in the state house. He will choose a committee to review the bill, likely either the judiciary, which deliberated the 2011 version, or state affairs. They will vote for or against sending it to the house floor for a full vote.

Lucas Matney, president of PRISM at Fort Lewis College, said last year he felt the house committee members had already made up their minds before the hearings. This time, however, could be different.

PRISM is an on-campus organization dedicated to empowering LGBT students and creating a safe zone for them, according to Matney. The political science major and student senator said he hopes to eventually work for the state department or United Nations “in order to protect LGBT rights and human rights as a whole.”

If Senate Bill 12-002 passes the senate floor, house committee and house floor, it would go into effect in October.

PFLAG’s Elbert, who has been married to her husband for 30 years, said this will help remove some of the barriers gay and lesbian couples face.  “After 30 years as a wife, I am a defender of marriage. My relationship with my husband is the most important one in my life,” Elbert said. “We do not face the same obstacles that my gay and lesbian friends do. However, the government never did add the sacredness to our legal union that makes it a marriage. We do that.”