Colorado is one step closer to civil unions

A bill allowing same-sex couples to enter into civil unions breezed through a Colorado state Senate committee Wednesday afternoon, giving gay-rights advocates hopes that the proposal might finally become law.

Similar bills failed during the past two legislative sessions. The most recent attempt was defeated in dramatic 11th-hour fashion last spring, when Republicans who controlled the House didn’t bring the bill up for a vote before the session ended.

But Democrats now control both chambers of the legislature, and Democratic Gov. Hickenlooper has called passage of the Senate Bill 11, the Colorado Civil Unions Act, a high priority for his administration.

Two openly gay senators and two openly gay representatives are sponsoring the bill. The acting chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, which heard testimony from dozens of people on both sides of the issue, is also gay.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was among those who spoke in support of the bill, telling committee members about how his brother Robert died of AIDS in 1996, and how his brother’s partner had no legal say in his medical care.

“I firmly believe that the government should not legislate who you love or who you commit your life to,” he said. “It’s too late for Senate Bill 11 to help my brother, but it’s not too late to right a fundamental wrong in our society.”

Supporters also included same-sex parents, leaders of interfaith religious consortiums and Mario Nicolais, the spokesman of Coloradans for Freedom, a group of Republicans who support civil unions.

Nicolais told the committee that there are “many, many, many” Republicans who support the bill, but his comments were made when the only two Republicans on the committee had left the room.

Though the bill moved on to the appropriations committee, it wasn’t without opposition. Committee members heard from several people against it, including Mark Rohlena, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Central Colorado.

Rohlena was concerned about the major difference between this year’s bill and the one from last year. The current version no longer includes a provision exempting adoption agencies that disagree with civil unions from placing children with same-sex couples. Catholic Charities, Rohlena said, only arranges adoptions to opposite sex couples who are married.

When asked if Catholic Charities would end adoption services in Colorado if the bill passes without such an exemption, Rohlena said it was possible.

“Catholic Charities were forced out of the adoption and foster care business [in other states that have passes similar laws] and based on what I heard today, that would be a similar battle we would be facing here,” he said.

Sen. Pat Steadman, one of the bill’s sponsors, said he removed the exemption provision because it encourages discrimination against gay couples. He asked Rohlena if he would support the bill if it included an exemption for adoption agencies opposed to placing children with same-sex couples.

“I think it would be a better bill than it is now,” Rohlena said, repeating his answer when pressed for a definitive yes or no.

“Thank you for your non-answer,” Steadman replied.

Many of those opposed to the bill said that it discriminated against those who are opposed to same-sex civil unions for religious reasons, with an attorney for the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom equating it to “religious intolerance.”

Opponents also said the bill ran counter to the will of Colorado voters, who in 2006 passed Amendment 43, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.