DENVER (AP) — Gay couples waiting for rights similar to those afforded to married couples got closer on Wednesday to a legislative showdown with Colorado Republicans after a Senate committee approved civil unions legislation after hours of emotional testimony.
Hundreds of people packed a hearing room at the Capitol to plead with lawmakers to give them legal protections traditional couples enjoy. The issue has gained traction as more states have recently passed either civil union or gay marriage laws.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper urged lawmakers to pass civil unions during his State of the State speech last month, and more Republicans have expressed public support for the measure.
The bill, passed on a 5-2 vote with one Republican senator joining Democrats, is expected to easily clear the full Senate. The real challenge will be in the Republican-controlled House.
Shawna Kempainnen and Lisa Green urged lawmakers to allow them to have a civil union, describing the medical struggles of Green, who has multiple sclerosis.
"Truthfully, I need to know that Shauna can have what she needs to care for me," Green said. She said it's "inhumane" that she and her partner don't have the same legal protections as married couples.
"Every moment that I can spend with Lisa feels like poetry," Kempainnen said, adding that it's wrong for the government "limit how far we can go on our journey."
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.
Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg, one of the opponents of the bill, said it undermines traditional marriage and goes against the wishes of Colorado voters, who banned gay marriage in 2006. He said the bill states civil unions are not marriage, but goes on to list marriage rights gay people would have.
"Do you not see that as being a legal jiu-jitsu to simply get around the term?" Lungberg asked Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, a gay lawmaker from Denver who is sponsoring the bill. Lundberg asked Steadman if he would be satisfied with civil unions, or whether it was the first step to overturning the state's ban on gay marriage.
"I can tell you Sen. Lundberg that if this bill passes, I will avail myself of it," Steadman said. "I am a member of the class of unmarried persons who are eligible for this relationship, and it is one that I would seek. Beyond that, I cannot predict. The arc of history is one that bends toward justice," he said, triggering applause from the couple of hundred people in the room.
Steadman co-sponsored similar legislation that cleared the Senate with bipartisan support before being rejected in the House. That's where the bill's fate is expected to be decided again this year. House Republicans who oppose the bill hold a one-vote majority.
Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty has said he opposes the bill, but promises that it will get a fair hearing.
Opponents testifying in opposition to the bill used harsh language to say they believe homosexuality is wrong. They also worried that civil unions diminish traditional marriage.
"Anything that lessens (traditional marriage) lessens society at large. Marriage is the cornerstone of society," said the Rev. Bill Carmody, with Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs.
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 before the laws would take effect.
And civil union laws took effect this month in Hawaii and Delaware.
"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.
Cobb said passing the legislation will be a positive reinforcement for their child.
"And making sure that he knows that he has a secure family and that we offer them unconditional love and sense of security," he said.
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