Round-two Colorado civil unions debate opens at capitol

Denver Senator Pat Steadman’s re-introduced same-sex civil unions bill is being heard this afternoon in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Although the bill will be passed easily by the committee’s Democratic majority, the hearing will be the staging ground for this year’s arguments for and against it, drawing the attention of political analysts, members of the public and lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature looking to gauge the direction and intensity of political winds in an especially charged election year.

The arguments, emotionally fraught on both sides, aren’t likely to have evolved much from 2011, when the bill fell by one vote in a House Committee late in the session.

Supporters will generally plead the case for equality and fairness and for the vital legal protections the bill offers gay families, and particularly the children of same-sex couples.

Opponents will argue that gay couples, through powers of attorney and state domestic benefit laws, already enjoy all the legal rights the bill seeks to bestow. They will argue civil unions is “just marriage by another name” and that marriage is the bedrock of our society and has always been defined as a relationship between “one man and one woman.” They will add that, in 2006 with Amendment 43, Colorado voters clearly expressed their will to ban gay marriage in the state. There will also be assertions that passing the bill will effectively promote civil unions, which is a bad thing, because “children do better with a mother and a father.” There will be Bible thumping.

In other words, as a local version of the national back-and-forth on gay-relationship rights that has accelerated in recent years and that sees public opinion and laws shifting dramatically month to month, the debate in Denver will turn on talking points. The question is whether those talking points, particularly the anti-civil unions talking points, will carry the same kind of weight they have in the past among the public and among the members of the state Republican caucus as a whole. It’s a question because by now, more than a decade into seriously debating this issue, those opposition talking points have been thumbed through like a paperback bestseller at a beach house by analysts and activists and the mainstream media and the talking points look worse for the wear.

First, gay couples don’t enjoy all the legal rights and protections bestowed on married couples. Children of same-sex couples here who split up, for example, are left in a sort of legal limbo. Negotiating parental visiting rights and child support, for example, can be woefully complicated and uncertain. To secure many basic rights for partners, like property inheritance and so on, same-sex couples in effect pay gay taxes and fees to lawyers and state bureaucrats to have the papers drawn up.

Second, the idea that voters should decide on matters of citizen legal equality seems increasingly to be viewed as unacceptable among the general public, as it has long been viewed by constitutional scholars. Human history is a narrative of majority groups failing to extend equal rights to minority groups. Securing minority rights in the face of majority resistance is a core constitutional aim in the United States and one of the reasons the American experiment in democracy is celebrated around the world, and not just by the oppressed.

Third, the history of marriage is complicated. That fact is underlined this year by the candidacy of the Republican frontrunner for president, Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, a faith that has always espoused a tradition of polygamy– or “big love” as the title of the major hit HBO cable TV show puts it.

As for the oft-quoted research that suggests “children do better with a mother and a father,” that too has been debunked as a rhetorical trick. In fact, that very same research has been bolstered by studies of gay families. The findings demonstrate consistently that children do better with two parents but that the gender of the parents is inconsequential. It just doesn’t make any difference if the parents are “one man and one woman.”

[ Image: Denver Democratic Senator Pat Steadman ]

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