Civil Unions Heading for Pivotal Hearing

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3min 54sec

[Photo credit: MVerlee/CPR]

Both sides of the fight over civil unions are gearing up for a pivotal hearing on the measure. The bill has a hearing in the state House Judiciary committee Thursday, the same place it died last year. As Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports, supporters are pinning their hopes on one lawmaker changing their vote.

[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report]

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: Janet Shown and Martha Petry live on the edge of the Lower North Fork burn area in Jefferson County. When the fire swept across the mountainsides in March, it wasn’t just their home that felt vulnerable … but their relationship. Petry is a firefighter. She wasn’t called on for this blaze ... but Shown says just the possibility brought home how precarious it is to live without legal recognition.

JANET SHOWN: "If Marsha had been on the call, and something had happened to her, if, Heaven forbid, she had been killed. I would not be the next of kin to be notified. I would not be legally related to her. And that’s difficult."

REPORTER: The two women wed in California during the brief window when same-sex marriages were legal there. But Colorado doesn’t recognize that union. And while they’ve written wills and drawn up contracts that provide some legal protection, Petry says lots of things aren’t covered.

MARTHA PETRY: "I don’t have any peace of mind that Janet would get what she needs were I to be gone. I always have to figure it out. And... you can cobble together some of it. There’s a lot that you can not."

REPORTER: Petry and Shown are among thousands of gay couples who hope the civil unions bill will change that. But all the panel’s Republicans voted against the measure last year. Still, House sponsor Mark Ferrandino says activists have been lobbying hard to change their minds.

Rep MARK FERRANDINO (D-Denver): "A year in this kind of situation, this kind of issue, moves the ball forward. So my hope is that that pressure, that understanding of where the public is, has moved one of the Republicans. We’re really going to continue to work on them."

REPORTER: Ferrandino believes some of those Republicans would actually support civil unions, if it wasn’t such a political risk for them. Representative BJ Nikkel of Loveland is considered one of the panel’s more moderate Republicans… and she’s decided not to run for reelection. Nikkel says she hasn’t made up her mind how she’ll vote.

Rep BJ NIKKEL (R-Loveland): "There are some issues that have been identified. And I think it’s whether we believe they should be addressed through fixing designated beneficiaries, or this civil unions bill."

REPORTER: The designated beneficiary law gives unmarried adults a legal relationship for things like end-of-life decisions and inheritance. But civil union backers say the contract falls far short of the legal and social recognition they’re seeking. It’s exactly that element of societal approval that Representative Bob Gardner doesn’t approve of. Gardner chairs the Judiciary committee.

Rep BOB GARDNER (R-Colorado Springs): "I’m not one that would say that, if civil unions were recognized tomorrow, Western Civilization as we know it would come to an end. And I say that with sort of tongue in cheek. But once we recognize a civil union and it does have the imprimatur of the state. Then it is the state’s encouragement of that relationship."

REPORTER: Gardner worries civil unions could come to replace marriage for heterosexual couples. And he points out that Colorado voters shot down a measure to create domestic partnerships six years ago. A recent poll showed that a majority in the state now support civil unions, something Gardner acknowledges.

GARDNER: "My sense is that there’s been some change in six years. The best way to find that out is to ask the people of Colorado one more time."

REPORTER: Supporters say they have no plans to go back to the ballot. Brad Clark runs the gay rights group One Colorado.

BRAD CLARK: "We don’t think shouldering a multi-million dollar ballot measure on gay and lesbian couples is something that they should have to shoulder, when it’s a legislator’s responsibility to ensure that all families have these protections."

REPORTER: Even if the civil unions bill survives today’s hearing, there are still two more committees, and a House vote to go before becoming law. And time is running out for the session, which ends next week.