Colorado lawmakers on March 12 voted to approve civil unions for gay couples. The bill on its way to the desk of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to be signed into law soon.
Applause erupted in the Capitol as the bill won final passage on a 39-26 House vote, with two Republicans joining all Democrats to approve the measure. Several dozen people watching from the House gallery left smiling and hugging, and some wiped away tears of joy.
"This is the best step toward equality Colorado could take right now. I'm thankful we got it done," Katy Jensen, a 34-year-old Denver engineer who plans a civil union with her partner after the bill becomes law on May 1, told AP.
Last year, Democratic Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, a gay lawmaker serving his first term, was among those in the House gallery with his children, watching as Republicans used their one-vote majority in the House to prevent the measure from being debated in the waning hours of the session, thus killing the bill.
"I sat with my kids at midnight, wondering what was going to happen the next time we had a tragedy. What would happen if I had to take my kids to the ER and then I was questioned whether or not I was really their dad," said Ulibarri, one of eight gay Democratic lawmakers serving in the Colorado Legislature.
Civil unions for gay couples became a rallying cry for Democrats who took control of the Colorado House in last year's elections, and they vowed an early vote on the proposal.
"Elections have consequences," said Republican Rep. Frank McNulty, the former House speaker.
Democrats now control both chambers of the Legislature, and the party elected Colorado's first gay House speaker, Mark Ferrandino.
"The people spoke in November, and we are fulfilling a promise we made at the end of last session," Ferrandino said.
The vote marks a dramatic political shift in Colorado, a western state with deep conservative roots that has become more moderate over the past decade. In 1992, Colorado voters approved a ban on municipal antidiscrimination 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."
And in 2006, voters approved a gay-marriage ban – meaning civil unions are the only option for gay couples in the state for now. That could change with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage bans in the coming months.
Republicans opposed the bill, saying they would've liked to see religious exemptions to provide legal protections for those opposed to civil unions.
Democrats contend the Republican suggestions to amend the bill would have opened the door to discrimination. Under the bill, churches are not required to perform civil unions, but Republicans wanted broader protections to include businesses and adoption agencies.
Republicans also argued civil unions were too similar to marriage, and that they would undermine the institution of marriage.
Responding to the vote on March 12, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., who is openly gay, said, "I applaud the Colorado State legislature for their passage of the Colorado Civil Union Act. This is an important victory for Colorado and for the gay and lesbian community. This is a monumental step on the road to equality in Colorado. I want to thank Speaker Mark Ferrandino and Senator Pat Steadman, as well as Brad Clark of One Colorado, for their leadership on this issue."
Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal said, "Another state has taken an important step forward in recognizing and protecting same-sex couples and their families. We congratulate the bill's sponsors - State Sen. Pat Steadman and Colorado House Speaker Mark Ferrandino - as well as One Colorado and the many other advocates and elected officials who fought so hard to secure this legal recognition. We have received a great many calls over the years at Lambda Legal from LGBT Coloradans seeking help and advice on how they can protect their families. This bill goes a long way towards making that protection a reality."