Colorado civil union issue overshadowed by supreme court

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DENVER - With the Legislature now firmly in Democratic control, it's a sure thing that Colorado gay and lesbian couples will soon be able to enter into civil unions to help them share property, children and health care rights.

But the long-sought goal for same-sex couples in Colorado is being overshadowed byevents in Washington.

In the spring, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up two cases that could determine whether states like Colorado can ban gay marriage.

Meanwhile, other states are moving faster than Colorado.

Last month's elections marked the first time that voters in other states - Maine, Washington and Maryland - opted to legalize same-sex marriage.

The votes prompted Wendy Haugen and Colleen Dunseth of Durango to announce their engagement.

"We had been talking about it for a while, but after the elections, we decided to announce it, because it seemed like there is some hope," Haugen said.

But in Colorado, the best they can do in the near-term is a civil union. A civil union grants rights and responsibilities identical to marriage under state law, but the union is not recognized by the federal government for tax and inheritance purposes.

Legislators say they will introduce a civil unions bill when the Legislature convenes Jan. 7 and pass it quickly.

The issue rattled the Legislature last year, when House Republican leaders shut down voting and killed nearly two dozen unrelated bills so they wouldn't have to bring civil unions up for a vote.

Civil unions passed the Senate last year with support from all 20 Democrats and three Republicans. Only one of the Republican supporters - Durango's Ellen Roberts - remains in the Senate, but Democrats retain their 20-15 majority and will have enough votes to pass civil unions once again.

In the House, Democrats now enjoy a 37-28 majority. At least two House Republicans also support civil unions.

Given the math, opponents have stopped arguing in public against civil unions.

Incoming Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, sponsored last year's bill. In the days after the election, his email was filled with people asking him to sponsor a bill to repeal Colorado's ban on gay marriage, but he said that's not on his agenda yet.

"I don't think we're there yet as a state," said Ferrandino, who will be Colorado's first openly gay speaker of the House.

"What I want to do is make sure couples in Colorado, families in Colorado have the recognition and legal protections that we can afford them under the Colorado constitution. So civil unions is the right thing to do," Ferrandino said.

Haugen, who moved to Durango six years ago, said she has always felt welcome in the town. But this year's supercharged political environment was uncomfortable for her and her partner.

"I've seen a lot more anger," Haugen said. "We've been called names and had our tires slashed as a direct result of homophobia in the past year."

And while the couple will get a civil union once the bill passes, Dunseth is really waiting for action out of Washington.

"I'm not convinced it's going to have any staying power until the Supreme Court rules on it," Haugen said.

The court will take up two cases this year.

The first case targets the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal benefits to same-sex couples in states that allow gay marriage. It passed Congress by a wide bipartisan majority and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996. Clinton now advocates its repeal.

Plaintiffs in the second case seek to overturn California's Proposition 8, a 2008 voter-approved law that bans same-sex marriage. Colorado voters passed a similar ban in 2006, so depending on how the court rules, Colorado's ban could be overturned as well.

Laura Latimer and her wife, Ellen Paul, got married in California before Proposition 8 passed.

Latimer is still interested in the politics of the issue, but often domestic chores and caring for their son take precedence, she said.

She has a ho-hum attitude about the upcoming civil unions bill.

"I think we would sign up, get a civil union, and then worry about who's cooking dinner that night," Latimer said.

joeh@cortezjournal.com