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Republicans quietly quash Colorado civil unions bill

During an emotional eight-hour hearing on same-sex civil unions at the capitol in Denver Thursday, a long list of witnesses on both sides of the issue told emotional stories of life as gay and transgender Americans. More than a few wept as they talked about shame, discrimination and systemic bias. Others quoting scripture warned of the end times the bill would surely hasten unto the Centennial State should it pass. The five committee Democrats took turns agreeing and disagreeing with witnesses, debating theology, Constitutional history and the horrors of the Jim Crow South and the Holocaust. The six members of the majority bloc Republicans on the committee, however, had little to say. They watched and listened and, without really elaborating their positions, voted as a bloc against sending the legislation to the full House for debate and a vote. They stone-cold killed the bill.

“This was pressure by leadership to not let [the bill] out of committee,” said House sponsor Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “That’s what you saw. They were scared.”

Since even before the bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support last week, House Speaker Frank McNulty had been telling Ferrandino and reporters that the bill, Sen. Pat Steadman’s SB 172, would get a fair hearing. Steadman and Ferrandino had picked up three of fifteen GOP votes in the Senate, with Durango Republican Ellen Roberts making an impassioned case for the bill as providing needed protections for gay Colorado couples and their children. Recent surveys of voters in the state showed strong support for the bill across the political spectrum and more than a few House Republicans had told Ferrandino that, if the bill made it to the House floor, they would vote to pass it.

With a one-vote Republican majority in the House and Democrats lined up solidly behind the legislation, Ferrandino needed only one or two votes to send the bill to the governor’s desk.

“I had commitments in Appropriations,” Ferrandino said, referring to the committee the bill would have gone to next to had it passed Judiciary. “I had something like 15 percent to 20 percent of the [Republican] caucus in the House.”

The scenario played out almost exactly as observers had been predicting for weeks, despite the momentum building behind the bill.

Steadman told the Independent on Valentine’s Day, the day he introduced the bill, that it would surely pass the Democratic-controlled Senate but then would likely be assigned to an unfriendly House committee. He guessed the bill would go to the Judiciary Committee, which would make sense given the subject of the bill. But Judiciary, he said, was stacked with social-conservative El Paso County Republicans, and it would be tough to get the bill out of there alive.

“We could not get one member of the Republican Party in this chamber, in this committee, to support the bill,” Ferrandino told the Independent as people filed out of the Old Supreme Court Chamber last night. “That’s gonna get out there. They were too concerned with what the far right wanted and not too concerned with what the people of Colorado wanted.

“Unfortunately, the people who lost today were couples making families and their kids– people in Colorado who won’t get the protections they need.”

The bill would have extended domestic partnership rights available here to same-sex couples, including medical visitation and decision-making rights, health insurance and survivor benefits, for example. It would have also guarded partners from being compelled to testify against one another in court and it would have provided a legal structure for couples to arrange for alimony and child support and visitation, should their relationships dissolve.

Will of the people

After the vote, Committee Chair Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told the Independent the main reason he voted against the bill was that Colorado voters had already made their will known on civil unions, when in 2006 they voted for Amendment 43, which defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and against Referendum I, which would have established civil union domestic partnerships.

“I generally believe the people of Colorado have spoken on this issue,” Gardner said. “There was a lot of discussion among supporters about polling– that people do or do not agree with the position [against civil unions] anymore. I think it’s very possible that they have changed their minds but I think we should be very reluctant to overturn something, particularly when the vote has happened in the last five years.

“I think it’s a major public policy decision and because it was subjected to a vote of the people, both in Referendum I and Amendment 43 in different ways, to do it differently now, [to pass it] legislatively, that strikes me as aggregating to ourselves something that the people have spoken on.”

That’s essentially the argument that has been cited most persuasively in public over the last weeks by Republicans opposed to the bill, despite the overwhelming trend among opponents of the bill outside the capitol and witnesses testifying against it inside the capitol to focus on faith- and scripture-based arguments about the unnaturalness and sinfulness of homosexuality and the threat gay people pose to traditional marriage and society.

Ferrandino said he thought that the “will of the people” argument had been exposed as merely a cover at the hearing.

“You know, if that was their real message, that we should send this back to the people for a vote, then they had a chance to support an amendment that would have done that,” he said.

Right before the vote was taken to close the hearing, Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, proposed to attach an amendment to the bill that would have placed it onto the ballot as a referendum.

“Not a single one of the Republicans supported that amendment,” Ferrandino said. “They’re talking out of both sides of their mouths. They’re just trying to find the most convenient answer to give so they don’t look like they bent to the far right of their party.”

Ferrandino said that, as strategy, he was willing to consider Ryden’s amendment, but that given the Republican response, it was not worth dwelling upon what might have been.

“I was willing to look at that just in order to get [the bill] out of committee,” he said, “but [Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder] was persuasive in opposing that idea.”

Levy argued that a referendum was not an appropriate way to approach the problem Steadman’s bill was designed to address. She said that, as legislators, they had all been elected to protect people’s rights. That’s a first priority for a lawmaker, she said. We don’t submit to a vote of the people Constitutional rights guaranteed to all Americans, including minority Americans. That’s not the way the United States is governed, she said.

If with that argument Levy hoped to win over the six representatives of the Party of Lincoln– the party of the great Republican president who risked the Union and committed hundreds of thousands of lives to securing rights for black Americans that could never have been won at the ballot box– well, she couldn’t be faulted for trying.

Very civil proceedings

Gardner thanked the attendees at the hearing for holding a spirited but very civil discussion. Yet the hearing was more civil for some than it was for others. Ferrandino said it was difficult sometimes to sit through the opposition testimony.

One man repeatedly quoted the bible to say that homosexuality was an abomination and that scripture dictated that gay people be put to death. Another said gay people were imposing an HIV tax on straight people. A representative of the Catholic Church said one-man-one-woman marriage created “the ideal” environment to raise children and cited specious research about how children respond best to biological parents of opposite genders. “There is plenty of literature,” he said, adding nothing about the plenty of literature that holds up loving two-parent homes as an ideal, regardless of gender or sexuality. Former Sen. Ed Jones, an African American, said he was aghast by arguments that frame the fight against gay discrimination as a matter of civil rights. You can’t choose to be black, he said, but no one knows they’re gay.

There were literally hours of that kind of talk and yet the Republican members of the committee never really broke in to object. They left that to the Democrats, who did sometimes object, but the Democrats were all voting in favor of the bill. No one could mistake what they thought about such arguments. In saying nothing for so long in the face of such opinion, Republicans let those arguments stand in for them as legitimate reasons to oppose the bill.

“It would have been nice to see them stand up to say, ‘Even if we don’t agree with this bill, the language about homosexuality being an abomination and about how gay people should be put to death–’ it was sad to see none of the members stand up and say that that was wrong,” said Ferrandino.

Director of gay rights group OneColorado Brad Clark agreed.

“It was striking that no Republican distanced themselves from the graphic testimony about religion and HIV. My question is: Do these Republicans believe in the arguments made against the bill here?”

Ferrandino said what happened at the hearing was disappointing on a lot of levels.

“What worries me is that there were people on that committee who I think in their hearts probably support the legislation but unfortunately weren’t willing to take the political risk to vote the bill out of committee.”

Ferrandino was also upbeat about the future.

“I’m not giving up. No. This body will change in the coming years and [the lawmakers] will look more like the people they represent,” he said.

Indeed, no one could have missed the demographic message delivered by the hearing itself. Young people in great numbers and across the political spectrum testified in support of the bill. The opposition witnesses were overwhelmingly Baby Boomers and their parents.

“I don’t want to see all the talented young people I saw [testifying] here today leave the state,” said Ryden in her closing remarks before voting in favor of the bill. “I want them to be happy and productive citizens in our state.”

[ Image: Opposition witnesses wait to testify at SB 172 House Judiciary Committee meeting (Ernest Luning) ]

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