Roberts casts key GOP vote in favor of Colorado civil unions bill

DENVER– Durango Republican Senator Ellen Roberts has received awards for championing youth causes and praise from capitol watchers for taking non-partisan problem-solving stands on critical issues. So it was both remarkable and unsurprising that she voted Monday with five Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor same-sex civil unions legislation.

“I kind of got a libertarian streak and I don’t think we should be in the business of legislating religion and morality,” she told the Colorado Independent after hours of testimony that featured a series of Christian ministers and born-again sinners warning against the evils of homosexuality. She said her constituents seemed split on the issue and that her vote was sure to come back as a flash-point primary-election topic.

“I totally support the right of any faith-based organization to say what they think is acceptable or not [acceptable] but I think voting for this bill was the right thing to do. I’ll have to deal with it,” she said. “I have certainly had a lot of phone calls from the folks who supported [the bill] and, as someone just told me, I will be hearing from many others who don’t.”

Roberts, who practiced law for two decades before winning election to the legislature, said she talked to her Republican colleagues on the committee before the hearing about why she thought they should look at the on-the-ground problems Coloradans were wrestling with every day that the bill, SB 172, addressed. She said in her experience as an attorney dealing with estates and child custody, support and visitation matters, the bill would extend state law to reckon with reality. She said the fact is gay couples in Colorado are sharing their lives and raising children and that the state presently fails to provide a legal framework that protects those citizens as partners and parents and their children in the case of divorce, death and injury.

Senators Kevin Lundberg, Steve King and Mark Scheffel were unconvinced and voted no on the bill.

“They… had different ideas,” Roberts said, putting her lips together and nodding.

The Lundberg line

Lundberg led the opposition to the bill in the packed Old Supreme Court Chambers, making arguments sure to be repeated as the bill moves to its next hearing and then into the Senate and then to the Republican-controlled House for consideration.

He said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman, was establishing “marriage in everything but the word” for gay people in the state as a sort of end-run around the will of the people.

Steadman argued that the bill specifically does not infringe upon the law established by Amendment 43, which voters passed in 2006 and which defines marriage as limited to a union joining a man and a woman. Steadman said the bare-bones text of Amendment 43 and the campaign waged by its proponents intentionally steered clear of prohibiting civil unions for same-sex couples. His bill would not establish marriage. It would establish a separate legal category.

Lundberg pointed out that in 2006 Coloradans voted not only for Amendment 43 but also against Referendum I, a civil unions proposal. He said Steadman’s bill was moving against the will of the voters.

Witnesses and members of the committee at the hearing made the point that citizens in the United States can’t vote away each others’ rights and that, in any case, public opinion has moved dramatically on the issue in the last five years.

“Ref I, I think had 58 percent voting against it,” Roberts told the Independent, “but I think things have changed a little bit since then.”

Last week House Majority Leader Amy Stephens told the Denver Post she opposed the bill because she thought the matter should be taken to the public for a vote.

Polls taken in the last two years have shown consistent strong support for civil unions in Colorado. A Public Policy Polling survey this year found 72 percent of voters across the state support civil unions.

Civil unions and the nanny state

Supporters of Steadman’s bill lauded it for placing more responsibility on gay couples. It would require gay partners to financially support each other and live up to those obligations should their relationships dissolve. Gay parents would also be legally bound to provide child support and arrange visitation rights, for example.

In fact, the bill seemed to turn political ideology on its head at the hearing.

Supporters were talking about the personal and fiscal responsibilities SB 172 would advance, the savings it would generate for the state, the good business sense it made, the rights it would guarantee and personal freedoms it would defend.

Detractors talked about the need to oppose the establishment of civil unions for the good of the citizens, a sort of “big government” or “nanny state” intervention.

In explaining why he was opposing the bill, Lundberg said civil unions had been established in France and that they had become a very popular choice there among heterosexual couples. He thought that was “eroding marriage” and so he didn’t think Colorado lawmakers should provide such a choice for the citizens here.

“This would be a new road we’re going down,” he said. “Marriage itself becomes less of a priority…. We can misdirect the institution of marriage.”

Sex and scripture

Opposition witness testimony mostly centered on sex and scripture. Pastor Roger Anghis waved his worn leather Bible in the air and announced that he was there to “represent myself and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Another man said he was there to speak on behalf of himself “and all born-again Christians.” An elderly woman held forth on the unnaturalness of anal sex and suggested that civil unions would corrupt the American spirit in a way Soviet dictator Josef Stalin would have envied.

Justice and equality

Committee members supporting the bill– the six women on the committee– said they were doing so out of fairness and to support families and to bring the letter of the law into line with the spirit of the law.

Denver Senator Lucia Guzman reflected on the long struggles undertaken by various minority groups to gain legal justice and equality in the United States. “It takes incremental steps” she said. “I didn’t run for office to get reelected. I ran to work for justice.”

Committee Chair Morgan Carroll said she was proud to be involved in considering Steadman’s bill. She said she thought it didn’t go far enough in establishing equality for gay Coloradans.

“I support full marriage equality and I wish we were there… but the rights you advance in this bill are too critical for me to turn my back on.”

Before casting her vote, Roberts brought the discussion back to children. Working to create greater parental commitment to young people is the right “moral and legal” thing to do, she said.

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