A Colorado proposal to allow civil unions for same-sex couples took a major step forward when it passed the full Senate on second reading Wednesday morning.
It is now up for third and final reading, which could happen as early as Thursday.
The bill is one step closer to reaching the House, where even Democrats who back the bill concede it faces long odds. Republicans control the state House.
Still, it was a celebratory mood after the vote and Democrats hailed it as an important step for gay rights.
"The bottom line is, it's an issue of fairness," said Sen. Rollie Heath, (D) Boulder.
"It's a great feeling," said Sen. Pat Steadman, of Denver, who is gay. "These are very personal and often emotional issues in your life, where having a legally recognized relationship matters."
But Republicans argued legalizing civil unions is no different than legalizing same-sex marriage, just a different term.
"The voters rejected this outright in 2006. They established a marriage amendment. They said no civil unions," said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, (R) Loveland. "Marriage is the essential institution of human society. I see it, personally, as something that God established."
Civil unions are already legal in Iowa, Illinois, Massachusetts and several other states and countries.
One rookie lawmaker from Denver, Sen. Lucia Guzman, said she's reminded of the struggles by black people to gain equal rights in the U.S. when she thinks about gays now. She said she realizes her vote in favor of Senate Bill 172 could be an unpopular one.
"By voting for this today, I may even lose my next election," Guzman said.
The bill sponsored by Steadman would allow couples to enter into a civil union so they could have several rights similar to married couples, including the ability to be involved in their partner's medical decisions.
Senate Bill 172 would give couples in civil unions several rights, including:
- the ability to be involved in their partner's medical decisions
- parental rights where a child is involved
- ability to decide what happens if a loved one dies
- make it easier for partners to list each other as dependents with health insurance
- enhances inheritance rights
- makes it easier for couples to list each other as dependents on health insurance
- gives a partner priority in being designated a guardian or personal representative
(Read more about Senate Bill 172
Gay couples would still not be able to marry, because voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006. But supporters of the bill say attitudes have changed substantially since then, and they believe the most Coloradoans support their legislation.
Hawaii recently became the seventh state to allow civil unions. Illinois passed a civil unions law in January.
Pastor Roger Anghis, with Littleton's Prevailing Word Ministries, spoke in opposition of the bill, saying it goes against the word of God.
"You should find this bill, when you put it up against the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to be reprehensible on all levels," Anghis said as he held up a Bible. "There is nothing in this bill that is good for society in any way, shape or form."
Senate Republicans also say voters want lawmakers to focus on the economy, not civil unions.
Rep. Ellen Roberts of Durango was the only Republican to join the five Democrats voting for the bill.
Democrats expect the civil unions bill to clear the Senate, where they have a 20-15 majority and every Democrat has signed up as co-sponsor. But the bill will face a tougher challenge in the House, where Republicans have a one-vote majority.
Rep. Claire Levy, a Democrat from Boulder, said there are a handful of Republicans who would support the bill in the House. But the bill may not make it to the floor for a full vote, because Democrats expect Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty to assign it to a committee where it will likely stall, she said.
"What I hear is that the chances aren't very good, which I think is a shame. I don't know why this would be a partisan issue," Levy said.
Before the vote, gay and lesbian couples were sometimes emotional as they pleaded with lawmakers to give them a chance to be in a civil union. It was standing room only as people crowded into a room where the Senate Judiciary Committee was hearing public testimony on the bill.
Shawna Kemppainen, a 45-year-old Colorado Springs resident, said being in a civil union would give her a better chance of taking care of her partner who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Kemppainen said she could make sure her partner, Lisa Green, is covered under her health insurance, and they both could have a say about medical decisions if either is hospitalized.
"This is a message about life, respect and the worthiness of individuals," Kemppainen said about the legislation's impact. "If you say no to this legislation, you are saying no to thousands of young people across our country who are unsure whether they're lives are worthy of respect and equality and fairness. I believe we have to send a message of yes to those young people."
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