State lawmakers legalize civil unions

Gay couples celebrate long road to gain ground

Keywords: Politics,
Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, hugs Rep. Brittany Peterson, D-Lakewood, on Tuesday after lawmakers passed a bill to allow civil unions in Colorado. The bill now goes to the governor's desk, where it's expected to be signed. Enlargephoto

CRAIG F. WALKER/The Denver Post

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, hugs Rep. Brittany Peterson, D-Lakewood, on Tuesday after lawmakers passed a bill to allow civil unions in Colorado. The bill now goes to the governor's desk, where it's expected to be signed.

DENVER - Gays and lesbians celebrated a long-awaited victory Tuesday morning when the Legislature approved a bill for civil unions.

The vote came 21 years after Colorado voters adopted Amendment 2, a law that prohibited gay rights laws and was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

It came just more than six years after Colorado voters banned gay marriage and rejected domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

And it came less than a year after an unprecedented shutdown of the House of Representatives by Republicans who wanted to prevent a civil-unions bill from getting a vote last year.

Sentiment on the issue - as well as Colorado political landscape - has changed quickly. On Tuesday, it was a Colorado Springs Democrat who noted the gravity of the moment.

"For thousands of people across Colorado, today is a day that will be remembered for the rest of their lives," said Rep. Pete Lee. "Today, March 11, 2013, is a day that will live in their hearts, because it is a day that we fulfill Colorado's constitutional promise, which grants everyone inalienable rights to enjoy their lives and liberty, to seek and obtain their happiness."

The measure grants gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights. People in civil unions also would have the ability to make medical decisions for their partners.

Senate Bill 11 passed the House 39-26.

Locally, Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, voted for the bill, while Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, opposed it. Last month, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, was the only Republican to vote for SB 11 in the upper chamber.

Several dozen people watching from the House gallery left smiling and hugging, and some wiped away tears of joy.

Once the measure is signed, Colorado will join a dozen other states that have civil unions or similar laws. Six states allow gay marriage.

"This is the best step toward equality Colorado could take right now. I'm thankful we got it done," said Katy Jensen, a 34-year-old Denver engineer who plans a civil union with her partner after the bill becomes law on May 1.

Last year, Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a gay lawmaker serving his first term, was among those in the House gallery with his children, watching as Republicans used their one-vote majority in the House to prevent the measure from being debated in the waning hours of the session, thus killing the bill.

"I sat with my kids at midnight, wondering what was going to happen the next time we had a tragedy. What would happen if I had to take my kids to the ER and then I was questioned whether or not I was really their dad," said Ulibarri, one of eight gay Democratic lawmakers serving in the Colorado Legislature.

Civil unions for gay couples became a rallying cry for Democrats who took control of the Colorado House in last year's elections, and they vowed an early vote on the proposal.

"Elections have consequences," said Republican Rep. Frank McNulty, the former House speaker.

Democrats now control both chambers of the Legislature, and the party elected Colorado's first gay House speaker, Mark Ferrandino. He sponsored the bill.

"The people spoke in November, and we are fulfilling a promise we made at the end of last session," Ferrandino said Tuesday.

Most Republicans opposed the bill, which grants rights equal to marriage under state law to either same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, lamented the lack of a "conscience clause" for people who oppose homosexuality on religious grounds to refuse to serve same-sex couples. He thinks churches could be sued for refusing to rent out their chapels for civil union ceremonies.

"I have every confidence that question will be tested in court," Holbert said.

However, the bill exempts churches. It does, however, require nonprofits and businesses run by religious organizations - such as adoption agencies - to follow anti-discrimination laws.

Republicans also argued civil unions were too similar to marriage, and that they would undermine the institution of marriage.

"Civil unions are not marriage. They are something that are separate, and distinct, and lesser, and unequal," Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman said. "And that really is not good enough. We passed this bill because this is the best we can do."

When asked, five of the eight gay Democratic lawmakers said after the vote that they would get civil unions. It was a difficult question for Steadman, whose longtime partner, Dave Misner, died of cancer last year.

"Some of us don't get that opportunity," Steadman said.

Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, was one of two Republicans to vote for the bill Tuesday. She jabbed Republican leaders for thwarting last year's bill, which did have the conscience clause that Republicans tried and failed to add in this week's debate.

"All those amendments made it onto the bill that was before us last year. It never made it to the floor," Gerou said.

The bill now goes to Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has said he will sign it.

joeh@cortezjournal.com. Associated Press writer Ivan Moreno contributed to this story.