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The Colorado State Senate on Thursday approved a civil unions bill in a bipartisan vote of 23-12.
Three Republican senators joined all 20 Senate Democrats in a vote to send Senate Bill 172 to the House of Representatives, where the GOP holds a one-seat majority.
Openly gay state Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver), who introduced and championed the legislation, recognized the historic accomplishment of today's vote, while keeping the uphill battle in the House in mind.
"I'm very proud of the Senate for what it did today," Steadman told The Advocate. "This is something I've been working on for years, and we're only halfway through the process with this bill. We're not there yet, and I'm going to keep working on it until we're done."
State Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver), the openly gay primary sponsor for the House bill, is confident that similar bipartisan support exists for a civil unions bill in the House, but acknowledged that the wild-card in successful passage is the committee assignment made by Speaker of the House Frank McNulty.
"I know of [Republican Representatives] who are confirmed yes or leaning yes; somewhere between five to 10 Republicans, which would be about 20% of their caucus, if not closer to 30%," Ferrandino said after the successful Senate vote. "So there is a possibility of the same level [of support in the House]. The question will be the first committee and how it fares through that. If it gets a fair hearing and it gets on the floor, I think we will send this to the Governor's desk."
Ferrandino said he expects to introduce civil union legislation in the House early next week, after which it will be assigned to a review committee before it can reach the House floor for debate.
Should the bill reach his desk, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the legislation into law.
Opposing testimony in the Senate, voiced by four Republican Senators, invoked religion and historical constructions of marriage. Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud), the bill's most vocal opponent, refused proponents' claim that SB-172 protects civil rights, instead calling the bill's assertion that civil unions are not equivalent to marriage, though they confer many of the same rights, "Orwellian double-speak."
"Marriage is not an institution that any one of us in this room has established," Lundberg said at Thursday's hearing. "It is the supreme ruler of the universe that first established marriage, and even if you don't accept that, human experience shows us
that marriage has always been seen and understood as being between a man and a woman. This is a new paradigm that we've only entered into in the last few decades in this world."
Republican Sen. Jean White (R-Hayden) broke with her caucus and voted to support the bill, and addressed the assembly to explain her vote. White said she has a niece and nephew who are both gay, and that her vote was in support of them.
Said White, "It occurred to me that if I did not come to the mic [sic] in support of this bill today, I would be voting quietly for it, but not having the courage to stand up for what's right. ... My vote today is for love, respect and commitment. My vote today is
for my niece and my nephew."
White told The Advocate she was moved by the testimony of her fellow Senators, but that her vote ultimately came down to a personal decision. When asked if she feared retaliation from her fellow Republicans who opposed the bill, White was clear: "No. I never feel bad about voting right."
White was visibly emotional during and after her testimony, and according to Brad Clark, executive director of LGBT advocacy group One Colorado, stories like White's are crucial in the fight for equality.
"I think that today's testimony reflects what is moving public opinion," Clark said. "It's people knowing folks that are gay or lesbian. And the fact that three Republicans came on this bill, [including] the moving testimony of someone with a niece and nephew who are gay and lesbian, that is so critically important."
Senators and observers commended the civil tone of the Senate's debate over the previous two days, which focused largely on legal, civil implications of the bill, rather than the vehement, graphic antigay rhetoric heard from members of the
public in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 7.
"I have been very impressed with the tenor of the debate in the Senate this year," Steadman said. "And I feel that the continuing elevation of the amount of civility with which politicians and legislators approach this issue is in itself a mark of progress."