DENVER (AP) – Civil unions for same-sex couples advanced in the Colorado House on Monday after sometimes heated and emotional arguments for the bill from gay Democratic lawmakers.
It was the debate many expected would happen last year, when Democrats said they had enough votes to pass the bill but Republicans who controlled the House never let it get debated in the waning hours of the legislative session.
This time the result of the bill is all but a forgone conclusion with Democrats in control.
“It’s about love, it’s about family, and it’s about equality under the law,” said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, the first openly gay lawmaker to hold that post in Colorado.
The measure was expected to advance on a preliminary voice vote after Monday’s debate, setting up a final vote this week that will send the bill to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is expected to sign it.
“This bill says to me that I have arrived,” said Rep. Paul Rosenthal, one of five openly gay Democrats in the House.
Republicans tried several times to amend the bill to provide religious exemptions for people and organizations that object to civil unions, including adoption agencies.
“Those religious values, the highest of all values, in my mind, are important,” said El Paso County Republican Rep. Bob Gardner.
Democrats argued that the amendments Republicans were proposing were too broad and would open the door to discrimination. But it was a proposal to allow voters decided whether to approve civil unions that drew the sharpest and most heated remarks.
Ferrandino said he doesn’t “think we should put to a vote my rights, my love for my partner, and for my family.”
He cited the example of gay Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, who co-sponsored the measure and whose longtime partner, Dave Misner, died of cancer last year.
“I sat there, in Sen. Steadman’s house the day Dave passed away. Their love is no less than everyone else’s love in this room,” Ferrandino said. “And to say that that love should be voted on by the people? That’s just sad. That’s not right.”
Gardner said that amending the bill to let voters decide civil unions would be “a fulfillment of what my constituents would expect.”
Republicans argued that the bill is too similar to marriage and point out that voters banned same-sex marriage in 2006.
“This bill is about fundamentally changing the institution of marriage going forward,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Priola.
The bill was one of the most contentious measures of last year’s session. Democrats had enough votes to pass it, but Republicans in the House prevented debate to defeat the proposal. That prompted Hickenlooper to call a special session to take up civil unions on other bills that died with the House GOP filibuster. Republicans voted down the bill in special session.
Ferrandino harkened back to 1992 when Colorado voters approved a ban on municipal anti-discrimination laws to protect gays. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court said the law, known as Amendment 2, was unconstitutional, but not before some branded Colorado a “hate state.”
“We have a horrible history with Amendment 2 in this state. And I don’t think we want to go back to that,” Ferrandino said.
Civil unions would grant gay couples rights similar to marriage, including enhanced inheritance and parental rights, among others. They would also have the ability to make medical decisions for their partners.
More than a dozen states allow either civil unions or gay marriage.
The meltdown over civil unions last year became a rallying cry for gay rights activists who targeted Republicans in swing districts to try to upend the GOP’s one-vote majority in the House. Democrats now have a 37-28 advantage in the House, and they retained control of the Senate after November’s elections.
Democrats urged Republicans to vote to be on the right side of history. Gardner responded that “only history will decide, only history will judge.”
At least two Republicans are expected to join all Democrats in voting for the bill.
By IVAN MORENO, Associated Press
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