The Republican dilemma: Colorado civil unions debate spotlights conservative-politics fault line

The coming debate in the Colorado House Judiciary Committee on same-sex civil unions bill SB 172 will center on Republican arguments for and against the legislation. The debate scheduled to take place under the Dome in Denver Thursday will underline the dynamics shaping the larger national debate on gay rights– a debate that now pits Republicans against Republicans because Democrats and Independents have already made up their minds on the matter.

As expected, Denver Senator Pat Steadman’s bill passed out of the Democratic-controlled Senate late last week. With all of the Senate Democrats signed on as co-sponsors, their support was a foregone conclusion. Yet the bill picked up the support of three moderate Republican lawmakers whose opinions about protecting families and securing individual rights and liberties clashed with their colleagues’ views about the threat the bill posed to traditional one-man-one-woman marriage.

“Fundamentally, as a Republican, what I have to look at is: Does [this bill] fit my core beliefs?” said Durango Republican Ellen Roberts last week, leading GOP support for the bill in the Senate. “I believe strongly in protecting individual core rights and liberties.”

Berthoud Republican Kevin Lundberg led the GOP opposition. “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,” he said, warning that passing the bill would lead Colorado to “abandon the family unit as a foundation of human society.”

On the ground

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that national support for gay marriage is now at 53 percent, with solid Democratic and Independent support. Although the poll found that Republicans support gay marriage at only 31 percent, that’s an uptick of 8 points since 2006. What’s more, support for civil unions is much higher among all these groups than is support for gay marriage.

In libertarian-leaning Colorado, it’s no surprise that support for civil unions among Republican and Independent voters is high. A 2010 poll commissioned by gay rights group OneColorado and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner showed that 61 percent of Colorado Republicans and 84 percent of Colorado Independents support civil unions. Independent voters make up a third of the electorate in the state.

“Support for civil unions is emerging as a mainstream position in the Republican Party,” said Brad Clark, OneColorado executive director. “More and more, conservative leaders are recognizing that civil unions for gay and lesbian couples adheres to a core conservative principle: the less intrusion into personal liberty the better.” Clark was referring to local leaders like Senator Roberts but also to national figures like Dick Cheney, Laura Bush and Cindy McCain.

On the committee

The members of the Republican majority bloc sitting on the House Judiciary Committee don’t seem like the kind of conservatives who would be persuaded by Laura Bush or Cindy McCain, however. Nor do they seem to much reflect civil-unions-friendly Colorado.

Three of the six committee Republicans are Colorado Springs social conservatives, and Loveland Rep. B.J. Nikkel was once an aide to arch social conservative Colorado Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.

Nevertheless, consistent media coverage of the debate in the legislature over the bill, clear shifting Republican- and moderate-voter opinion on the issue across the state and the bipartisan Senate support for the bill may have an effect.

“The Senate vote clearly gives the bill more momentum,” Democratic House sponsor Mark Ferrandino told the Colorado Independent. “That’s 20 percent of the [Republican] caucus. That makes a strong case for a full floor vote in the House.”

GOP House Speaker Frank McNulty has said on several occasions that he is committed to giving the bill a fair hearing. Ferrandino has also said he believes he has enough Republican votes to pass the bill in the House and Republican representatives have begun to go on record as supporters.

On Friday, most of the GOP members of the Judiciary Committee told the Denver Post that, like McNulty, they’re also committed to “giving the bill a fair hearing,” even if they are personally opposed to civil unions.

Committee Chairman Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, told the Post he opposes civil unions but that he is “certainly hearing from both sides” on the issue.

Rep. Mark Barker, R-Colorado Springs, said he also was committed to a fair hearing, before adding that he was a Southern Baptist.

Nikkel said she hadn’t read the bill but of course she would also give it a fair hearing.

On the family

Ferrandino told the Independent the family argument is the one that’s gaining traction with House Republicans.

“It’s the eloquent case Ellen Roberts made on the [Senate] floor for the bill that will sway them,” he said.

Roberts said Steadman’s bill reckons with the reality that unmarried gay and straight Colorado couples are committing themselves to one another and raising families. She said that, based on her experience as an estate and divorce attorney, she believes the state government has left glaring holes in the laws intended to govern family life. Unmarried Colorado partners, gay and straight, should be able to draw on insurance policies and collect worker compensation, for example, they should be able to arrange for alimony and child support and make official child custody and visitation arrangements.

Ferrandino said House Republicans wouldn’t be persuaded by gay-rights libertarian arguments. “Nah, that won’t do it,” he said.

“It will come down to the fact that this bill adds important protections for families. When you look at civil laws, they’re there to protect kids.”

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