Colorado Senate Republican women vote ‘aye’ on civil unions, send strong message to House leaders

(image: Alan Light, Flickr)

Senate Republicans delivered Pat Steadman’s same-sex civil unions bill to the Republican-controlled House Thursday with momentum and a message. Although the twelve Republican men in the Senate voted against it, the three Republican women in the Senate voted in favor of the bill, making the case to leaders of the Republican-controlled House to take up the bill with good faith and allow it to move beyond committees and onto the floor of the House for a vote.

Democratic Senator Mike Johnston celebrated the Senate vote as another step toward making real the “old promise” that “all men are created equal,” a statement tinged with irony given the role played by the Republican women in advancing the bill.

Durango Republican Ellen Roberts signaled her support early on as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She told the committee members and the Colorado Independent weeks ago that Steadman’s SB 172 reckons with the reality that unmarried gay and straight Colorado couples are committing themselves to one another and raising families and have been doing so for years. She said that the laws on the books neither provide these couple with basic legal protections nor require them to live up to the legal responsibilities that come with committed partnership and child rearing. It’s just good policy to reckon with that reality, she said, and that’s the case she said she was making among her caucus members. It’s a case that appears to have persuaded her female colleagues Nancy Spence, from Centennial, and Jean White, from Hayden.

“I believe the moral debate about whether this is right or wrong belongs in our faith communities, not in this building and not in this chamber,” Roberts said. “You need the children [of gay couples] to know that they will be cared for. My core beliefs are that I believe strongly in protecting all people’s individuals rights, freedoms and liberties, and for me this bill advances that.”

The rest of the caucus voted against the bill, including Broomfield small-government libertarian champion Shawn Mitchell. Arguments made against the bill have been that it might diminish or “misdirect” marriage, as Berthoud Republican Kevin Lundberg has said, and that a majority of Coloradans voted down a similar proposal at the ballot box in 2006.

“Is Senate Bill 172 good for the people of Colorado or is it a diminishment?” Lundberg asked. “The question is, Is this good or is this not good? I say it is not good.

“Marriage is not an institution that anyone of us in this room has established. Indeed it is the supreme ruler of the universe who established it. Even if you don’t accept that, human experience shows us that marriage has always been seen and understood as between a man and a woman,” Lundberg said.

Highlands Ranch Republican Frank McNulty, House Speaker, will now assign SB 172 to a House committee for review. The scenario that has haunted the bill since it was introduced in February is that it would pass the Democrat-controlled Senate and then be assigned to a hard-line Republican committee on the House side where four or five members could vote it down and kill it.

That’s still a strong possibility. Yet the bill has garnered much media attention and public polling suggests large majorities of Coloradans support it. McNulty has signaled in the past that he believes the bill deserves a fair hearing and a vote in the House, where Republicans enjoy a one-seat majority. The strong bipartisan vote tally in the Senate bolsters that case.

Gay rights organization OneColorado celebrated the Senate voice vote Wednesday, where all three Republican women supported the bill, in part for the fact that it strengthens the case for McNulty.

“We look forward to working with House Republican leadership who have promised a fair hearing,” said Brad Clark, executive director of OneColorado. “Issues of significant importance with overwhelming public support like civil unions deserve a full and fair hearing with an up-or-down vote by the entire House.”

House Sponsor Mark Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat, has said for weeks that he believes the bill has enough support among Republicans in the House to pass should it make it to the floor.

Supporters of the bill might take heart from the fact there are nine Republican women serving in the House this legislative session, at least two of whom have already signaled they would vote for the bill.

Joseph Boven contributed to this report.