Colorado faith leaders urge lawmakers to support civil unions

In advance of a committee hearing scheduled for Monday on state Senator Pat Steadman’s civil unions bill, Colorado faith leaders held a press conference at the capitol Thursday expressing support for the bill. Their presence at the capitol was frank acknowledgment of the way opposition to the legal recognition of rights for gay domestic partners has long been made on the basis of religion. In fact, religion stands on both sides of this issue, they said, and the issue, especially as addressed in Steadman’s bill, is about constitutional rights.

“This bill is not about morality. It’s not about religion. It’s not about faith. It’s about basic civil rights,” said Rabbi Joseph Black from Temple Emanuel in Denver. He explained that the reason he was speaking out in favor of the bill as a faith leader was, in effect, to set the record straight.

“For too long the loudest voice from the religious community in regard to GLBT community has been that of condemnation and denunciation and that needs to change,” he said. “You’re going to be hearing opposition to this bill from faith communities and we just wanted you to know that that’s not the only voice that’s out there.”

Reading the Bible

With a personal anecdote, Highlands Church Pastor Mark Tidd underlined what he viewed as the absurdity of hinging legal rights on rigid notions of gender and sexuality.

He said he had wondered years ago what he would say and do if and when a transgender child he had watched growing up as a member of his congregation wanted to get married in the church. He described the somersaulting line of thought that flashed through his mind. He might be able to consent if the child had undergone an operation, or if the child chose a boy to marry, or no, maybe a girl, and so on.

“I suddenly thought, What, am I going to ask them to drop their pants? Why am I thinking marriage is about genitalia? It became clear to me that there was nothing wrong with [the child]; there was something wrong with the way I was reading the Bible.”

The religious leaders described Steadman’s SB 172 as a hard-core civil rights bill, explaining that it extends rights presently denied to gay citizens of the state and it also strengthens the right to religious freedom.

The bill solidifies domestic partnership rights for gay Coloradans and knocks down existing bureaucratic and financial hurdles gay and transgender Coloradans often have to jump over to secure those rights. The bill would extend tax breaks as well as adoption, estate-planning, medical decision-making and prison-visitation rights, for example– rights married couples take for granted.

Just as important for many faith leaders around Colorado, the bill bolsters the right to religious freedom by granting legal recognition to presently unrecognized domestic unions entered into out of religious motivation and blessed by faith leaders. It also protects the right of religious leaders to refuse to recognize or solemnize unions that fall outside of or challenge their beliefs.

Foggy opposition

The search for non-religious reasons to oppose Steadman’s civil unions bill can end in shadows and fog. Arguments referring to “common sense” and “long tradition” or even the “diminishment of the identity of marriage” offered almost exclusively by religious leaders and spokespeople serve mostly to beg questions. Attorneys, judges and citizens around the country have been led by such arguments to ask why “tradition” or “common sense” or something as vague as “diminishment of the identity of marriage” should ever be enough to deny adult tax-paying Americans rights?

Indeed, the gorilla in the capitol press room Thursday was the absence of major denominational leaders. Where were representatives or members of the large Colorado evangelical churches and organizations known to Americans across the nation? Where were Catholic leaders?

Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family is campaigning against Steadman’s bill, as is the Catholic Church here.

Focus political arm CitizenLink sent out an email to supporters conceding that fair-minded people will support civil unions. The group nevertheless urges those fair-minded people to resist supporting Steadman’s bill because civil unions may lead to legal gay marriage, which Focus believes would negatively affect heterosexual marriage.

In a letter to Colorado Catholics, Archbishop Charles Chaput, the high-profile head of the Denver Archdiocese, also argued against civil unions. He wrote that gay people here already enjoy “nearly every benefit” the bill would bestow.

Yet there are literally hundreds of legal rights and responsibilities littered throughout the state statutes that accrue to married Coloradans that aren’t presently available to gay couples, or if they are, come with a price tag. Gay and transgender Coloradans already enjoy basic nondiscrimination, second-parent adoption and designated beneficiary rights. Those rights come free to married couples but sometimes come with prohibitive legal fees for gay people. Gay coupes looking to adopt, for example, pay thousands of dollars for the privilege that straight couples don’t pay.

Chaput also makes the case that the law will “inevitably” erode the “privileged place” of marriage and family.

“The key flaw with SB 172 is that in its language and practical effect it creates an alternative, parallel structure to marriage using explicitly spousal language.  This inevitably undermines the privileged place of marriage and the family.  Marriage and the family are cornerstones of any culture—Christian or not.  They ensure the future through the creation of new human life.  Any diminishment of the identity of marriage and the family undermines society itself.” 

“It’s not simply religious,” he wrote, “it’s a matter of common sense and long tradition.”

Most concrete, perhaps, Chaput mentions potential impacts the law would visit on “the benefits the Church affords to her employees.” He believes civil unions legislation might force the Church to provide benefits to gay employees’ partners. It’s a “very real concern,” he wrote.

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