The General Assembly hasn’t spent much time on social issues this session -- lawmakers are putting a lot of their energy into agreeing on a budget. Civil unions though, has been the exception. The bill granting same sex couples most of the rights of marriage made it through the state Senate after much debate. Yesterday it faced a harder hurdle -- surviving in the Republican-dominated House.
Long before the eleven lawmakers took their seats in the committee room, both sides knew this would be the make-or-break vote. The sponsors said they had just enough support to pass civil unions on the floor of the House, but to make it there, they’d have to find one Republican on the Judiciary committee to go against their party. Before the hearing each side rallied on opposite sides of the state Capitol.
PASTOR ROGER ANGIS: "We ask father for favor, when we go inside this building today, when we touch the hearts of the people on the committee..."
FERRANDINO: "...Whatever the outcome is, know this -- that civil unions are not a matter of if, but when. And this will happen!"
But for all bill sponsor Mark Ferrandino’s rallying words, as the hearing started there was a big sense of IF in the air -- would the bill survive?
So many people came to testify they filled every chair in the Capitol’s largest hearing room, lined the walls three deep, and spilled into two overflow chambers. On both sides, the testimony was far more personal than what you usually hear at the State Capitol. People talked about their families, their relationships and religious beliefs. One woman told the story of being denied contact with her former partner’s son because she doesn’t have any custody rights.
WITNESS: "I guess I just challenge you to sit down with my now almost 15-year-old son and explain to him how your beliefs, opinions, or even perhaps fears are more important than his well-being in having the emotional, physical, and financial support, of a primary parent that was part of his life for eight years."
Testimony wasn’t just personal for witnesses. Yesterday, the committee heard from two of the partners of openly gay legislators. Representative Mark Ferrandino became teary as his partner Greg Werstch told the committee they’re adopting a child.
WERTSCH: "Do the conservative thing, please! Do the conservative thing and vote for stable, committed loving two parent relationships like Mark and me."
But for many who spoke in opposition to civil unions, giving legal protections to gay relationships wouldn’t strengthen society, but damage it deeply. Bill Roach, like many opponents, based his objections on his faith.
ROACH: 'Here are the words that god describes in scriptures to describe when a man shares sexual relationships with a man or a woman with another woman: "error," "abomination," "reprehensible," "against nature," "exceedingly grave sin."'
Roach complained that civil unions would redefine the entire concept of marriage. And Douglas Napier, a lawyer representing Colorado Family Action, argued the bill violates the will of the public. Five years ago voters restricted marriage to between a man and a woman.
NAPIER: "They wanted the marriage union to have a distinctive quality and protection in this state. So when you make look-alike relationships, like civil unions in this bill, then I think you really have run afoul, if not the letter of the law, then the spirit of the constitution which the people Colorado passed."
The vote on the civil unions bill came after almost eight straight hours of testimony. Tension filled the room -- supporters waiting to see if they’d won over the single Republican vote they needed.
They didn't. The bill died on a party-line vote.
Afterward, as bill sponsor Mark Ferrandino was leaving, Sonnenberg reached over and told him he’d make a great father. Talking with reporters, Ferrandino complained that political pressure cost him the bill.
FERRANDINO: "I do think there were members on this committee who were open to the legislation, but from pressure from the far right decided they couldn’t go there because they were too worried about their political future. Instead of doing what’s right, they did what’s politic."
But Republican Brian Del Grosso -- one those rumored to be open to civil unions -- said it was just a tough decision. He looked back to the vote on Referendum I, when voters turned down domestic partnerships.
DEL GROSSO: "I think the deciding factor at the end of the day was that 2006, so just four and a half years ago, they said, we don’t support that and so I don’t feel like, as a legislator it’s not my... I shouldn’t override the will of the voter."
TR 10: Leaving the hearing, civil union supporters vowed to keep pushing to gain the rights of marriage, but wouldn’t answer questions about whether they’ll take the fight to the ballot box.