The Colorado legislature is a house divided. And, so too, is the state on a matter of civil rights. And one serious wedge issue keeping lawmakers from closing ranks is civil unions; legislation that Democrats believe is essential if the state is going to provide equal rights and protection to all of its citizens.
Civil union legislation would allow same sex partners the same privileges as traditional marriage partners on financial responsibility, medical decision-making and treatment, inheritance, ability to adopt their partner’s child, family leave and more. It failed to pass during the regular legislative session. And, in a special legislative session called by Gov. John Hickenlooper, it failed again.
The first time death came calling on the civil union legislation was on the last day of the regular session when Republican leadership allowed the clock to run out without a full House vote. Its second demise occurred on Monday, the first day of the special session.
On Monday, House Speaker Frank McNulty assigned the measure to the House State Affairs Committee where it was debated and then predictably defeated in a party line vote.
“House Republicans are focused on creating jobs,” said a Republican spokesman. “This (civil unions) is seen by many as a wedge issue meant to focus away from Democrats’ poor jobs record.” But he also added that some Republicans voted their constituency’s wishes or out of personal convictions.
But despite civil unions failing in Colorado, its hotly contested demise coincided with President Barack Obama’s declaration last week that he favors same-sex marriages, a position he articulated in an ABC News interview. “I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
In just eleven words, the president made history. He is the first sitting president to endorse the idea of same sex unions.
“I’m delighted and elated,” says Colorado American Civil Liberties Union Public Policy Director, Denise Maes. “He’s the leader of the most powerful nation on the globe. It took courage.”
Along with courage, the president’s pronouncement may also have been a reflection of polls on civil unions and gay marriage that shows a country increasingly shifting toward more and not fewer rights for a historically marginalized group of Americans.
The president’s position on gay rights, Colorado’s civil union defeat and North Carolina’s vote last week against gay marriage illustrate the emotions connected to this issue. It is an issue on which the Bible is often used to defend and justify opponent’s intransigence on providing equal treatment and fairness to gays and lesbians.
“We cannot take everything from the Bible and say ‘this is the way it’s going to be,’” says Professor Lupe Salinas, a former Houston judge and current professor at the Thurgood Marshall College of Law. “Sexual orientation issues are real,” Salinas says. “People are born gay.” No one, he says, made a choice to be gay and providing equal protection, is not granting special rights.
But more than thirty states, including Colorado, have laws or have written into their state constitution bans on same-sex marriages. In North Carolina, the same-sex measure went down by a nearly two-to-one margin. A good deal of the money to finance media ads denouncing gay marriage also came from religious organizations.
But while states have reworked their constitutions on same-sex marriage, the U.S. Constitution says nothing at all on the subject. And that is what makes Colorado’s foray into the matter so troubling to the state’s gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual community. Too many state lawmakers, says the GLBT community, are relying on their religion to legislate against Colorado citizens.
“I don’t think that the government should endorse that religion or religious viewpoint and make laws that essentially deny people rights,” says University of Denver law professor Catherine Smith.
Anti-gay laws, Smith says, hurt a lot of Coloradans and none more than the state’s youngest citizens.
“Children in same-sex families are being denied the exact same benefits and rights of children of opposite sex couples. And I’d love for someone to explain to me how that’s justifiable on any principle, whether religious or not.”
But while Colorado’s civil union move has suffered a setback, supporters say they will reintroduce a similar measure again next year. They also say they won’t relent until it has won approval. And, if polling trends are accurate, that may not be too far away.
Young voters, those under age 30, are overwhelmingly in favor of civil unions or same-sex marriage. Public Policy Polling says that 77 percent of Coloradans under 30 favor extending these rights to the GLBT community. Independent voters also support more rights to the GLBT community by a nearly two-to-one margin.
The numbers do not bode well for the current generation of Republicans now holding their party’s power. Without an acknowledgement and shift away from right-leaning social issues, Republicans face the risk of losing appeal among the younger voters they hope will someday be taking their place.
Changing minds and perceptions won’t be a slam dunk for the GOP. But already, there is an erosion and shift by a number in the party who believe that it is time to rethink and reexamine their party’s traditional position on gays and lesbians.
“In the Senate, we had a full 20 percent of the Republicans who voted with the Democrats on civil unions,” said veteran Democratic Sen. Joyce Foster. Also, in the House, it was Republican committee votes that kept the measure alive until the last day of the session.
It won’t happen tomorrow, says Professor Salinas, but somewhere down the road, “we’ll look back and say, ‘I can’t believe it; how unfair we were to people just based on sexual orientation.’”
“But, sadly” he says, “we’re still taking quite a while to getting around to their civil rights.”