Colo. Senate Gives First Approval To Civil Unions

Similar Bill Failed Last Year

A Colorado Senate committee has given first approval to civil union legislation that would grant gay couples rights similar to married couples, joining several other states in taking up the issue this year.

The vote Wednesday brings gay couples a step closer to a showdown in the Republican-controlled House, which is likely to determine the bill's outcome. A Senate committee approved the legislation on a 5-2 vote with one Republican joining Democrats.

A similar bill failed last year. It's expected to clear the full Senate for votes in the House.

Courtney Law and Sonja Semion have been together for six years. They own a house together and would like to have children.

"We have the same hopes and fears as others. We are not currently legal recognized though. Our relationship isn’t," said Semion

That's why the couple is standing by a bill allowing for civil unions -- giving same sex couples the same legal rights as married ones.

"If something were to happen when we start a family, which we hope will happen soon, we'll have the ability to take care of each other," said Law.

"It's encouraging to see people rise above the political fray to respect the dignity of my family," said Jason Cobb, a 37-year-old Denver attorney who has been in a 14-year relationship with Jason Prussman, 38. They have a 4-year-old son.

Traditionally, Democrats, seen as liberal on social issues, have pushed the bill, but now support is coming from an unexpected ally.

“Republicans and conservatives can support civil unions," said Republican activist Mario Nicolais.

Nicolais is leading an effort called Coloradans for Freedom. The organization is lobbying right-leaning lawmakers.

"These principles of equality, these principles of individual liberty and individual freedom are the basis of conservatism," said Nicolais.

Republican or Democrat, Courtney and Sonja will take all of the help they can get.

"We have friends who are straight and gay, and Republican and Democrat and Independent, and there’s not a single person who sees us different as we see ourselves," said Semion.

While some Republicans feel this type of legislation violates their personal principals, the organization feels there are enough conservatives who feel otherwise.

The bill addresses parental rights and child support when a same-sex couple separates. The bill would also grant same-sex couples other rights similar to what exist in a traditional marriage, such as the ability to be involved in their partner's medical and end-of-life decisions. It also would enhance inheritance and property rights.

"Every family understands the laws that we're talking about here and why a legally recognized relationship is so important," said Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, a gay lawmaker from Denver who is sponsoring the bill. "People deal with this at their kitchen tables every day. They may not realize that they're dealing with this particular issue, but the kinds of things they're dealing with -- health care decisions, estate planning, child support, child custody, property rights, relationship problems, you know, everybody's known somebody that's gone through a divorce."

Last year, the bill Steadman co-sponsored easily cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, and it's expected to pass the chamber again this time. However, the proposal's future is uncertain in the House, where Republicans who oppose the bill hold a one-vote majority. It was defeated there last session on a committee party-line vote.

Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty has said he opposes the bill, but promises that it will get a fair hearing.

Supporters of the bill have been trying to get a Republican co-sponsor in the House, but no one has signed on yet, Steadman said.

More than a dozen states allow either civil unions or same-sex marriage.

The governor of Washington state signed a bill legalizing gay marriage Monday, and the New Jersey Senate passed a similar measure the same day. Both face challenges.

Also, civil union laws took effect this month in Hawaii and Delaware.

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