Colorado civil unions hearing comes as national debate shifts on gay marriage

The Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building in Denver could be a hot spot for civil unions should Colorado voters pass a proposed ballot measure modeled on the 2006 Referendum I. (Photo/PKDan, Flickr)
The Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building in Denver could be a hot spot for civil unions should Colorado voters pass a proposed ballot measure modeled on the 2006 Referendum I. (Photo/PKDan, Flickr)

Proponents of a 2010 Colorado ballot initiative that would establish civil unions for same-sex couples met with state attorneys on Tuesday for a required “review and comments” session, a typically staid affair that normally draws only those required to attend.

But this was no usual session. Although the initiative was proposed last month, Tuesday’s review comes during a week when gay marriage has been at the center of national news and when developments across the country are dramatically shifting the terrain of the debate.

On Friday Iowa’s Supreme Court overruled a gay marriage ban in that state. On Tuesday Vermont lawmakers overrode the Republican governor’s veto of legislation that legalizes gay marriage there. The same day, the District of Columbia council also voted to recognize same-sex marriages from states where they’ve been sanctioned.

The effect in the small Colorado Capitol hearing room was pronounced. Photographers poked enormous lenses at the proponents. Reporters hovered and scribbled notes. Advocacy groups and onlookers sat in the chairs that lined the walls.

“We’re positive we can get this passed now,” Joe Peterson, one of the three initiative proponents, said after the 15-minute hearing concluded. A lot has changed since 2006, he said, when Referendum I, a “domestic partner” initiative, failed to pass in the state.

Peterson pointed to the election gains made by Democrats last November: “Now we have a five-to-two Democratic caucus [representing] Colorado in Washington. Our politics are much more progressive. If you look at the numbers for Referendum I … something like 66 percent of young people voted to pass it. (President) Obama energized young people, and there are people turning 18 in the state every day. It’s just a matter of tapping into that energy and mobilization.”

The media attention surrounding the hearing made it look like a version of the more open forums initiative reform that advocates propose to encourage more public scrutiny of laws proposed by citizens and of the initiative process overall.

Peterson and co-proponent Tara Craig, both political science students at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, were prepared for the scrutiny. They spoke on the issue freely and in paragraphs, citing figures and case law. Indeed, their initiative stands out among those proposed for 2009-10 as particularly well-crafted and well-considered. They came prepared to the hearing, clearly having studied the comments provided by the state’s attorneys and, even more unusual, ready to follow the advice provided by the attorneys.

“We had no legal help in writing the initiative,” said Peterson, “but we based it closely on Referendum I.”

He said they agreed to make all the technical changes recommended by the state attorneys because those points “were oversights” they admitted to making during the drafting process. The point, said Peterson, was to write the strongest law possible.

That’s also why he and Craig decided to propose changing Colorado statutory law and not the state constitution. They wanted specifically to shape the law, even if that meant it could be changed by legislators.

“If we did a constitutional amendment, the legislators would design the statute. … We understand the risk involved in choosing this over an amendment, but we feel if the voters approve it, even if the Legislature becomes unfavorable to us, the initiative would still be held as the people’s will.”

Peterson and Craig, who have both interned with U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, a Fort Collins Democrat, said they considered the term “civil unions” carefully. It confers greater rights than “domestic partners” in state law, they argued at the hearing, and it doesn’t confuse the issue for those who would seek to defend the term “marriage.”

So far Peterson and Craig said they have received overwhelmingly positive support for the initiative.

“People come right up to me on campus and ask how they can support the initiative,” Peterson said.

Craig says they’re formulating their plans for the signature-collecting campaign.

“We have time, but we know we want it to be very grass-roots, mostly volunteers. We’re making up a plan that breaks it all down based on how many signatures we need to collect per week.”

Peterson is blogging about the campaign at DailyKos, and the two are planning a promotions push using Facebook soon.

“It’s still fairly early,” Craig said.

Suddenly, though, in regard to gay marriage, November 2010 is a political eon away.

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